Bookmark and Share

 

PRESENTATION OF DATA

 

The researcher undertook this study to assess how the experiences of elders in Lincoln and Kanawha Counties of West Virginia impact how they currently work with inactive Christians.  To arrive at such an understanding, the candidate conducted nine interviews with elders serving churches of Christ in Lincoln and Kanawha Counties of West Virginia.  The researcher divided the interviews into three sections to assess phenomenologically the elders’ dealings with inactive Christians.  The candidate will first provide case studies of each participant and then will organize the data according to the structure of the interviews.

Case Studies

James McCann

            James McCann,[1] an eighty-two year-old gentleman, serves the Lincoln Church of Christ as an elder, a position he has held for the past four years.  The Lincoln congregation, located in Cross Lanes, West Virginia, averages fifty to sixty at Sunday morning worship.  McCann served the Lincoln congregation as the minister for several years before his age required the congregation to look for a younger preacher. 

Experience as an Inactive Christian

McCann was baptized at the age of twelve because of his mother’s influence, yet he became inactive while serving in the military.  When the participant mentioned he did not like the restoration process at times, the researcher asked specifically what he disliked about the process; he replied:

Well I just resented it sometimes—the elder chewing me out. This one elder I’m talking about could get a pretty rough at times. He’d get on me, you know.  And I just resented it to a certain extent . . . . He just chewed me out. He told me how I needed to straighten out and live right.

 

Because he did not like the way the elder spoke to him while he was inactive, McCann attempts to work with inactive Christians in a totally different manner.  He told about the most recent encounter he had had with an inactive member.

I was talking to one of them yesterday.  I didn’t chew her out, but I said, “We need to see you at church.”  I talked to her like that.  She hadn’t been coming—oh, once in a while.  But I go about something like that in a round about way, like I say, I said, “We need to see you at church.”  I don’t say, “You ought not be doing what you’re doing.”  They know what I mean.

 

McCann described why he “didn’t chew her out.”

Well like I said, I don’t believe getting them and chewing them out like that elder did me.   I just try to be persuasive with them and try to do it in a nice way. Like I said, that one elder really chewed me out one side and down the other.  I don’t, because I resented it to a certain extent, but I knew he was right.

Because McCann had such a negative experience with an elder, the participant seeks to work with inactive members in a manner that does not cause them to have a negative experience.

Becoming an Elder

            Although he had a negative experience with an elder, McCann became an elder at the urging of the congregation he now serves.  When the participant was serving as the congregation’s minister, the church realized they needed more elders.

They had elders, but one had a stroke.  They realized they needed more.  There weren’t any elders.  I had never thought much about it.  They asked me if I would.  And, I was preaching there at the time.  Somebody said, “What if we want to get a new preacher?”  I said, “Well, anytime there’s going to be confusion over me being a preacher or elder either one”—I told them I’d be the first one to resign—and pick somebody else, ‘cause I really hate division in the church.  I hate it.  I hate it with a passion.

Lack of Growth

McCann hates division with a passion, but he also laments the lack of growth the Lincoln congregation has experienced in the past couple of years.

We’ve got a full-time preacher.  But, we haven’t grown numerically—financially side of it we’ve grown—we’re supporting a preacher alright.  But, I’d rather see it the other way and grow numerically, and we’re not.

 

            Not only has the Lincoln congregation not grown recently, but they have actually experienced decline.  About worship attendance, McCann said:

It’s getting bad right now.  Right now it’s getting bad.  People are not attending like they should.  Like I said, there were only fifty there yesterday morning, and I’d say a year or two ago, we’d had seventy.  We’re losing our young people.  We’re losing them. 

 

            When asked why the church was losing so many young people, McCann answered:

Sometimes they say, “I don’t like what you’re doing down here.”  Sometimes it’s the attraction of the world.  Sometimes they’re just too lazy.  Sometimes they’d rather go fishing or whatever—They don’t put enough emphasis on attending worship, not forsaking the assembly. 

 

Interestingly, McCann said that the attraction of the world caused him to become unfaithful during his military service.  For McCann, the attraction of the world can prove more powerful than the attraction of the church and her Lord.

Walter Runyan

            Walter Runyan is seventy-four and serves as an elder for the Coal River Church of Christ in Hamlin, West Virginia.  The participant preached for the church three years when the church was financially unable to support a full-time minister, and he has served as an elder for the past fifteen years.  His father also served the church as a preacher more than fifty years ago, and his grandfather served as an elder.

Early Recollections of Elders

            Runyan remembers the elders from his youth quite fondly, for “they were very concerned about the church, they worked hard to keep things in line and things going well.”  In their concern for the church, those elders were willing to exercise corrective discipline.

There were times when they actually withdrew fellowship—actually I can only think of one time when there was—I was either in school or in the military when it happened so uh…I don’t remember the details of it, but I think adultery was involved, and they withdrew, you know, in a public way. 

 

The participant recalls that the entire congregation, not only the elders, demonstrated concern when a member fell away: “There were obviously members who were very concerned and would call them or send them letters or cards or whatever.”

Defining Inactive Members

            In his current role as an elder at the Coal River Church of Christ, Runyan finds the definition of “active member” quite difficult.  When asked to describe the activity of the “typical” member, the participant replied:

That’s a difficult question.  LAUGHTER.  Uh, because basically you know what you see.  We have extremely good attendance on Sunday night and Wednesday night.  There have been occasions recently where we had more on Sunday night than we had on Sunday morning and times when we had more on Wednesday night than we had on Sunday.  So far, as you can judge their involvement by their attendance—of course, I know you can’t always judge people’s involvement by that, because I know there are a lot of things that go on outside the assembly that we’re not always aware of.  We have women who, you know, go every week just about to visit shut-ins and to help clean house for somebody that’s sick, take food to ‘em, you know, so there are a lot of women who are really kinda quiet, but they go do these things.

Concern for Inactive Members

While he may have difficulty describing the typical member’s activity, Runyan has great concern for those growing lax in their worship attendance.  In talking with the other two elders at Coal River, the researcher learned that Runyan developed a system to gauge worship attendance and contact those who were not frequent in their attendance.  One of the other participants described the system Runyan developed:

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 effort to contact them – whether it be phone, card, visit, and see if we can, you know, generate interest.  We, you know, we have our business meetings every month and one of the other elders, Walter Runyan, came up with this, we had been kinda in a way doing it, but we didn’t have any set procedure.  I mean we knew members who were not coming and we missed ‘em, and we would always tell them whenever we’d see ‘em, “We miss ya, we’re glad you’re here.  Is everything okay?”  But, that was about the extent of it, and we finally decided that, you know, we have some problems, and if we don’t address them, we’re losing souls.  So, how can we address it and take a more active part in, you know, giving those people more attention than what they’re getting just when they show up or, you know, we would call some, and we would either call them or make sure they were called or got cards, but we just didn’t do it efficiently, you know, we didn’t have anyway of saying, “Well, we know for sure this person was not here these times.  But now we keep a list.

 

The researcher wanted to understand Runyan’s rationale for beginning such a system, and he asked the participant, “I understand from talking to the other two elders that you developed a system to kinda keep track of who was coming and make sure members weren’t becoming inactive.  What made you decide to do that?”  The subject replied:

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.

 

Runyan decided such a program was needed, because “We were concerned about the people who weren’t attending.”

            Runyan’s concern for those not attending also caused him to desire to know whether members did not attend because of spiritual problems or whether they were absent from the assembly for some other reason.

We sent out a letter a year or so ago encouraging our members to let the elders know 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.

 

Thus, the participant attempts to keep a solid pulse on the congregation he serves so that he can deal with spiritual problems as they arise.

Understanding Why People Become Inactive

            Although he seeks to deal with spiritual problems promptly, Runyan fails to grasp why spiritual problems occur.  When asked why individuals became inactive, he said:

They somehow have lost their zeal.  We’ve had people that became Christians, and they were here for every service and then, I don’t know, in some cases, we have people who drive for pretty good distances, in some cases, and that may be a discouragement to some of them.  Uh, I think people just loose their zeal for some reason.

 

While the participant saw a loss of zeal as the reason of inactivity, he could not identify the root cause of losing zeal.

Prompt Action

            He may not understand the loss of zeal, but Runyan, like the research from the literature review, recognized he needed to act promptly when members began to fall away.  When asked what he had learned from his experience, the participant responded:

Probably the sooner you get them back the better chance you have of restoring them.  The longer you wait the less likelihood they are, well, you know, a lot of them will come back when they get old, they realize finally, and the tragic thing about it is too many times their children have already gone away, then they come back, they don’t realize the influence that they have lost with their children by staying away. 

 

The participant recognized his pastoral duties toward inactive Christians, and he sought to fulfill those responsibilities by keeping watch over the Coal River congregation and acting promptly when he noticed a problem.

Allen Snodgrass

            Allen Snodgrass, a fifty-one year-old participant, has served as an elder at the Midway Church of Christ in Belle, West Virginia for the past five years.  His father and grandfather served various churches of Christ as elders for a number of years.  He attended Freed-Hardeman University and preached for churches of Christ in Missouri, Arkansas, and Mississippi before returning to his home.  Snodgrass left full-time ministry after his doctors advised a different line of work following a near-fatal heart attack.

Recollections of Earlier Elders

            Snodgrass appreciated the elders he witnessed in his formative years, but he has come to have grave doubts about their ability to serve.  He said of his earlier elders:

They were good men.  They were good men.  They were of good character.  I don’t think they had a lot of Bible knowledge.  I think that they were just good ole boys that—they believed in God.  As far as having technical Bible knowledge, they didn’t have that.  They were a product of what they were taught.  Jesus said when the student is fully trained he will become like the teacher—that’s what they were, they were products of their teaching, so if their teaching was limited, then their understanding was limited.

 

In the elders’ limited understanding, they did little to retain members of the congregation.  When asked what they did to retain members, Snodgrass quickly replied that the church “had a preacher.”

            The elders’ limited understanding caused them to do little more than hire a preacher. for Snodgrass reported that only occasionally would they visit inactive members.

Sometimes they’d go see ‘em—sometimes.  Sometimes they wouldn’t.  I think it depended on the situation.  I think that if it was just someone who just lost interest, I don’t think they did much, but if it was a sin, they’d go see ‘em, because they didn’t want that associated with them.  You see what I’m saying?  They didn’t want—people knew that they were a member of that church and they didn’t want that associated with—because their whole concept was that it would bring reproach on the church, so I think they would go see ‘em.  I don’t know.   I don’t remember a lot of people that were ever disfellowshiped or withdrew from or whatever terminology, you know what I’m talking about.

 

Those elders, in Snodgrass’ recollection, cared more about the church’s perception than about souls which might wander from the truth.

Causes for Inactivity

            Snodgrass believes people become inactive, then and now because of a misplaced emphasis upon the church instead of her Lord.

I think our emphasis was the wrong thing.  That our emphasis is, has been, you know, faithful to the church as opposed to being faithful to God.  I think the church became, in my lifetime, I think the church was the central focus rather than Jesus being the central focus, and the faithfulness was attributed to the church as opposed to faithfulness being attributed to Jesus in the church.  I think that has been one real reason, from my perspective, that we didn’t go after.  We didn’t.  We weren’t militant.  People saw the church as people and they saw their inconsistencies as opposed to them seeing their faithfulness to God, they didn’t care if their faithfulness was to this group of inconsistent people and the thing about hypocrites, you know, I don’t want to be a part of people who are hypocritical and they say one thing while they’re at church and one thing while they’re out here and one way that you really remedy that is that you help the church as a group to know that we’re sinners saved by the grace of God, that we’re not perfect people.  We are—we’re weak and we’re all struggling and if people—the perception is that these folks here in the church think they have it together and people who are actually being honest know they don’t have it together  and they say, “I can’t fit in to that.”  And they don’t want to be a part of that, so in getting them back into the church rather than seeing their focus toward God they saw their focus as not being able to be a part of this group who thinks that they’re, they’ve got it all together when I know that I don’t.  And that was one of the reasons that I think we have lost a lot of people from the church fellowship.  They think that what the church is is a bunch of saints coming together to adjust their halos on Sunday morning.  Rather than being a hospital for sinners that come together and say, “I’m struggling with this” without somebody saying, “Well, I can’t believe you’re struggling with that.  I don’t struggle with that”—lying through their teeth.  It’s all been about the church of Christ rather than the Christ of the church.  And that they have equated their salvation with church membership as opposed to having a relationship with the Savior.

 

Snodgrass believes, then, the answer to inactivity lies in a change of emphasis, emphasizing the church’s Lord, rather than the Lord’s church. 

Role of an Elder

            Snodgrass sees his role in changing the emphasis among Christians in terms of a pastoral role rather than an administrative one.

Being a shepherd is more the deal, I think.  And I tell you something else I started doing, when I was in school, Philip Keller wrote some books about the 23rd Psalm and the good shepherd.  A Shepherd—that’s what it was—A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm.  And I’ll never forget in the 23rd Psalm about the part “he restoreth my soul.”  What restoring was for a shepherd was if you had a sheep that went out away from the fold, you’d go get him and bring him back.  And if he kept wandering off what he would do—he would get that sheep and he’d take his foreleg in his hand and he’d take his staff and break his leg.  And he’d bind it up and he’d have to carry it with him everywhere the flock went.  And then whenever the leg healed the sheep never left the flock again.  “He restoreth my soul.”  So, that is discipline, to restore the sheep back to the fold.  And that is something that I have been trying—well, let me just tell you this. To give you the idea—when I was in Mississippi we had some folks that needed discipline.  And this was right after the deal out in—was it Texas or OklahomaOklahoma, yeah, whenever the lady sued the elders of the church and all that stuff, and I said, “We need, you know, we need”— we were having an elders’ meeting—“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—I said, “It’s not to prove to us or to the world that they’re not a part of us.”  I said, “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 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. 

 

Snodgrass sees the lack of discipline among churches of Christ as a major obstacle in appropriately shepherding the local church.  He told of some members at Midway who had caused a multitude of problems, and he added, “I think one of the reasons that that has been a problem is because we are not involved in church discipline.”

Charles Davis

            Charles Davis at eighty-seven has served the Midway Church of Christ for well over thirty years as an elder.  His father became a member of the churches of Christ while living in Richmond, Virginia, before he moved the family, including five-year-old Charles, to rural West Virginia in search of more promising work.             

Early Recollections of Church Work

            Because Davis’ father settled the family in rural Lincoln County, West Virginia, the family only attended church services sporadically, for churches of Christ were few and far between. 

When I was growing up we never went to church very much, because the only time we had a church was when we have a meeting in a schoolhouse somewhere.  And sometimes we would meet a little while but then there wasn’t very many.  It would  kinda quit.  And then there would be some preacher come through and we’d have another meeting.  We had a lot of people like that.  They didn’t live here and they would come and hold meetings. Then they would move on.  Sometimes we would quit meeting. Somebody else would come along and start it up again.

 

In 1929, Davis’ father and his wife’s father began efforts to erect a meeting place for the

church, the building where the Midway church meets today.  Davis still vividly recalls that building’s construction and the impact the Great Depression had upon the congregation.

When they first built the church building down there—nineteen twenty-nine is when they built the building, and we had great attendance and then the Depression come along and there were a lot of people who worked in the oil fields here that lost their jobs and went to Michigan  and of course for a while it really hurt because you know, so many went and didn’t come back.  Went up there and got jobs and stayed that were going to church there.  I don’t remember how many families—there was several of course.

 

Davis reports that the church suffered in those days more from Depression-era relocating than from the inactivity of the members.

Working with Inactive Members

            Davis was quite unsure of how to deal with members who became inactive.  When asked how he, as an elder, had dealt with such individuals, he succinctly replied, “We did the best we could.  We never did write anybody off, I don’t think.  We always had hope.”  Although he remains uncertain of how to deal with inactive members, Davis believes elders have great responsibility toward them.  He summarized what he believes that pastoral role entails: “Go see them, talk to them, encourage them, be with them some, before they get too far away.”

Joseph Craig

            Joseph Craig, a fifty-five year old supervisor at Verizon, serves as an elder at the Coal River Church of Christ.  He was baptized at the congregation in 1995 on account of his wife’s influence.  He regularly attended another congregation of the churches of Christ from the age of five, but he delayed his baptism until his wife decided to obey the Gospel.  She was baptized at the Coal River congregation one Sunday along with their teenage son, and Craig was baptized the following Sunday.  While the congregation in which he was reared had elders, Craig mentioned that he could recall neither how many elders the congregation had nor the names of specific elders.  Craig is confident that members of that congregation became inactive occasionally, but he does not recollect any instances of inactivity.

Becoming an Elder

Two years following his baptism, the elders of the congregation approached Craig about serving as the deacon in charge of benevolence.  He accepted that responsibility and became an elder three years later.  When approached by the elders concerning becoming an elder himself, Craig was quite reluctant.

One of the main reasons I had never thought about it [becoming an elder] was because of what I considered maturity.  And, I mean, I had been at the congregation for well, five maybe six—five years probably—five years we’ll say.  And that’s how long I had been a Christian.  And, I wasn’t real sure about the maturity part, but after we studied and considered and, you know, we decided that well, you know, I had, in a sense, grown up in the church and had been around and knew what was going on and so they decided that I was—I would meet the qualifications to be an elder, so I didn’t know of any other reason not to.

 

Once he overcame his concerns about maturity, Craig threw himself into his work as an elder at the Coal River congregation.

Working with Inactive Members

            Part of throwing himself into his work as an elder includes Craig’s regular calls to members moving toward inactivity.  He recounted for the researcher efforts he has taken to work with one inactive member.

I’ve got one person that I call and she says, “Well, I’ve 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 participant seeks to wait no more than two weeks after someone misses a service to contact that member: “I try to do it every week if they’ve been gone for a week, but no more than two weeks.”

Defining Inactive Members

            Although Craig seeks to work with inactive Christians on a regular basis, he has difficulty defining exactly what constitutes an inactive member.  The researcher asked how many inactive members the Midway congregation had, and the participant replied, “How many inactive members?  Okay, you’ve got to a good question, because how do you define ‘inactive’?”  Because he sought to understand Craig’s own definition, the candidate promised to provide a definition for the participant only after he had answered the question on his own, and the definition he provided quite closely parallels the definition used throughout this study.

One definition would be a person has been a member and you haven’t seen ‘em for years.  Another person that I would consider inactive is a person who shows up once a month.  Now, there may be another term for that person, but to me if you only show up once a month you’re almost inactive—so, slack. 

Use of Church Discipline

            Craig has difficulty with the way the Coal River Church of Christ handles inactive members.  He appreciates the efforts the elders have made in the past year in regularly calling those who have become or are on the verge of becoming inactive, but he wishes he and his fellow elders would take a more firm stand.

There are certain cases that, you know, defies all logic as to why you wouldn’t withdraw.  I do, really, in my mind I fell like that if a person reaches a stage where they show no interest and you cannot get ‘em to, you know, and in a lost of cases they will just flat out tell you, “I’m not coming, and I don’t care anymore.”  Or you’ll have somebody tell you, “I’m gonna be there” and not show up.  And I actually think we are doing ourselves a disservice by not gettin’ more serious, because I think that you’ve lost ‘em, you’ve lost this person if they don’t show up and if you can through love show ‘em that they need to be coming, they need to take it serious and they will return and you’ve accomplished a great task.  And everybody’s afraid that you’re going to turn them away.  Well, you’re not going to turn them away any worse that what they already are.  So, I kinda look at it like only good can happen from it.  Plus, if you have people who are still considered to be Christians by the congregation but don’t show up, what kind of example are you showing to your younger Christians or to people who are non-Christians.  People who are non-Christians can come to church and they might come every week, but why become a Christian if this person’s a Christian and they never come.  I mean, you’ve got negative examples and negative influence.  But, I guess the problem that I see is and well the greatest fear would if they just don’t respond, but you really haven’t heard anything.  Now the person knows they’re withdrawn from, now it may sink in one of these days, and they may get serious and come back.  If they don’t get serious and don’t come back then, we . . . . It’s not like that the congregation has doomed them, ‘cause they’ve done it to themselves.  So, I don’t . . . I really feel like it’s something that either we need to take it more serious.  It, it’s just hard to do.

 

Craig firmly believes that if the Coal River church became more serious and began to withdraw fellowship from nominally active or inactive Christians, the church as a whole would greatly benefit.

Pastoral Responsibility

            Craig’s concern for inactive Christians demonstrated by either calling them or wishing the church would do more stems from how he views his pastoral responsibilities.

I think an elder should be very concerned about inactive Christians.  I think that’s what 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.

 

Craig’s concern means he has great dedication in working with inactive Christians.  In fact, he is so dedicated he wishes he had more time to devote to working with wayward members: “I’d like to, the only thing I’d like to do, personally, is just to be able to do more of it.  Um, I mean, I’d like to be able to take, if I had every spare moment, but it’s a problem of finding spare moments, or, you know, how do you allocate your time?


Peter Faulkner

Recollections of Earlier Elders

Peter Faulkner is currently sixty-one and has been an elder at the Coal River Church of Christ for fifteen years.  The participant has quite fond memories of the elders serving his home congregation.

They were good men.  Good men, very good men, and good teachers, good teachers of the Bible, good examples to the community, they would help in any way they possibly could to help ya.  One of our elders, though, however, his wife had crippling arthritis, and I can remember so vividly he would actually on Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings, on Sunday mornings he would get her up and he would comb her hair, he’d fix her breakfast, ‘cause she couldn’t do any—her hands were so crooked and she was in a wheelchair all the time, but he would actually get her up and get her ready and have her hair so pretty and get her ready to come to church.

 

The leaders’ goodness and willingness to help became evident when Faulkner’s father began becoming inactive.

My dad one time, he kinda got disappointed, I guess, with the way things might have been going or may not have even been that, but he was working on his house, building his house and he wasn’t going to church as regularly as he should have and one of the elders come and talk to him and that made a big difference in my dad.

While Faulkner was not present when the elder spoke with his father, he remembers the impact the conversation had on both his parents.  “I do remember them coming and talking to Mom and Dad.  I remember them talking, but that was really encouraging to them.  That helped them to get going back regularly to church.”

Concern for Inactive Members

            Probably because that elder showed such concern to his parents when Faulkner was young, the participant cares deeply when he sees parents of young children move toward inactivity: “We try to encourage them, especially those with families that their family needs to be in the church, because they know what’s coming, they understand what’s coming.  We’ve tried to tell them that.”    Yet, Faulkner does not concern himself with only those inactive Christians who have young children, but he cares deeply about all inactive members of the Coal River congregation.  When describing his work with inactive members, the participant said, “It bothers me when people know what’s right and what is good for their soul and then let it go—just like they don’t care.  It hurts, it hurts.”  The participant’s concern came through quite clearly as he shed tears as he spoke of individuals at the Coal River Church of Christ who have become inactive.

Kenneth Welch

            Kenneth Welch, a fifty-seven year-old Christian, has served the MacCorkle Avenue Church of Christ as an elder for the past ten years.  He went to the MacCorkle Avenue church to serve as the minister about twenty-three years ago.  Welch appreciated the elders at the Midway Church of Christ where he was raised, and when asked what he disliked about those elders, he replied, “There wasn’t anything that I did not like—anything that I can say I didn’t like about them.  You know, as always, you had, you know, different strengths and weaknesses.  But, they were good people."

Recalling Inactive Christians

            Welch had difficulty recalling specific examples of individuals’ leaving the church in his youth, yet in the example he did recall, Welch knew the elders made efforts to win back the individual.

I don’t recall too many examples, you know, during my growing up period and even after, say college, college years and so forth, there were some.  And I can remember the elders’ being concerned about it – I think they were concerned about it whenever it happened, and the last—that’s when I went away to college, and I know at that point, I can remember in particular a man right down the hill here who was a very fine man I thought, someone I really looked up to, was unfaith—became unfaithful during that time, and I know the elders did make efforts to try to talk with him and try get him to come back to church.  So, I know they had an interest, you know, to some degree at least, in folks who strayed away.

 

Just as the participant had difficulty recalling experiences from his youth where individuals fell away from the church, he also had difficulty identifying inactive members at the MacCorkle Road Church of Christ.  When the researcher asked Welch how many members at MacCorkle Road he would classify as inactive, he named two individuals, asked the other elder at MacCorkle Road who was present, and said, “Not very many, frankly.”

            Welch’s difficulty in identifying inactive members could result from a couple of factors.  His inability to name inactive Christians could result from inattention, perhaps the same reason he could not recall many examples of inactivity from his early youth and college years.  That explanation, however, does not best fit the other data gathered from Mr. Welch.  As the interview progressed, the participant named two other individuals who had left active service at the MacCorkle Road congregation.  Welch also spoke of the high responsibility he believes elders have toward inactive Christians: “I certainly believe that there’s a great obligation there as far as an elder.  An elder ought to have a lot of interest in every member, you know, but certainly toward those who are inactive.”  An inattentive elder would not name additional inactive members as they came to mind, nor would he see a high responsibility toward inactive Christians.

Make up of the MacCorkle Avenue Church of Christ

            Welch’s difficulty in naming many inactive Christians more likely results from the nature of the MacCorkle Road church.  The congregation largely consists of older people who cannot participate in many activities.  About the activity level in the congregation, Welch said:

We’re not a real active congregation as far as a lot of activity going on all the time for people to be involved in.  We, you know, we have a Bible school, we try to do, have Gospel Meetings, we, from time to time, set up other activities and things that we try to get people involved with.  We don’t really have a good nucleus of people to depend upon to do things.

 

Not only does the congregation not have a large level of activity, but Welch also reported that the congregation has suffered from a downturn in the industrial chemical industry, a major employer in Lincoln and Kanawha Counties of West Virginia.  The participant said “We have lost more folks in terms of just moving away.”

Approaching Inactive Christians

            Even though Welch does not have many inactive Christians in the congregation he serves, he does not mind at all to approach them.  When asked what fears he had in working with inactive Christians, the subject said:

I’m not afraid to approach them.  Sometimes you feel like they don’t want you to.  More than anything else, that’s probably the greatest thing.  In fact, you know sometimes, particularly if you’ve talked the same person two or three or four times, you get the feeling that they don’t really want me to talk to them.  I mean, I’m not afraid, I don’t think either one of us [Welch and his fellow elder] is afraid.

 

Welch does not even fear the possibility of legal action.  When the researcher asked the

participant about lawsuits, he replied:

 

I don’t think so.  We, I recall one young lady that we talked to Lois who was coming to church, kinda coming, supposed to be a member and was living with a man and wanting us to help her, and 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, but . . . .

 

Welch, then, will work with any inactive Christian he encounters.

Thomas Lane

Becoming an Elder

Thomas Lane, Kenneth Welch’s fellow elder, is seventy-six and has been an elder at the MacCorkle Road Church of Christ for the past twenty-three years.  He became an elder after a business meeting during which one of the men recommended Lane would make a good elder.

Well, over at MacCorkle Road the church was pretty big back when I became an elder—even bigger before I did, because shortly after the Korean War and everything, you know, there was lots of activity around the Valley, a lot of people moving in and working at the plants and a lot of stuff like that.  And, they didn’t have any elders when I moved there, when we moved there in ’56 and we got some men that become very mature and sorta grew up in the position, I guess, where people thought we were qualified and we—somebody proposed that we ought to have elders and some of the men started looking around and said, “Well, here’s four that we think maybe can be elders today,” so we did.  LAUGHTER.  We went through a process, announcing it to the church, and considering elders and some interviews—there, there were some people who wanted to talk with us about, various ones of us about questions that they had and stuff like that.  And it wasn’t any big problem that I knew of anyway.  Somebody asked me one time, “Did anybody get mad and leave when you appointed elders?”  I said, “No.  Why?  Are they supposed to?”  LAUGHTER.

 

While the other three elders appointed at the same time have either died or moved elsewhere, Lane continues to serve the church faithfully.

Activity in the MacCorkle Road Church of Christ

            Because he serves the church faithfully, Lane lamented the inactivity he witnesses at MacCorkle Road.  The researcher asked Lane about the activity in the congregation, and he responded:

How active is the typical member?  Well, if a good number of them could get out of bed or out of the nursing homes, they might be pretty active.  LAUGHTER.  I don’t know.  We’ve—I would like to see them a lot more active.  We do have a lot of old people that just aren’t physically up to it, and, in this day and time, the young people, both the husband and wife works, almost exclusively, what younger couples we’ve got, and they are limited with time and I don’t like those kinds of situations, but again, with them being almost forced into working now with the economy the way it is, I don’t know what we can do about it.  I would like to see a lot more active people, but our people are basically older and they just can’t participate in a lot of things that I would like to see going on, ‘cause they can’t get out at night and stuff like that and can’t do a lot of walking, a lot of them, so, and the younger people are bogged down with working, working overtime and one thing or another, so in my opinion, they’re not as active as I would like to see them, yet I think there are reasons for that, some things that are holding them back some.  And again, we’ve got some that  pretty, a few that are pretty undependable sometimes with attendance and stuff like that is concerned.

 

When the researcher asked Lane his opinion of inactive Christians, the elder returned to the theme of activity.

Well, when I hear the phrase, “inactive Christian,” I think of one who’s drifted away and just not doing anything.  However, I think there are other terms for people that go off and seek a bunch of entertainment and stuff like that, I don’t know what the correct term for them is.  To me, an inactive Christian is somebody whose just become do-less and not really pursuing anything religiously.  Those other people are active, but they’ve been drawn into things they shouldn’t be drawn into.

 

Lane, therefore, sees Christianity in terms of activity.  “Inactive Christians” for Lane represent those who are truly inactive, doing nothing religiously, but those who are attracted to error are active, just actively doing what is wrong.  This study would include both groups under the definition of “inactive Christian.”

Obstacles Posed by Entertainment

            Not only does Lane see those attracted to religious entertainment as actively doing wrong, but he believes the lure of such entertainment represents a major obstacle as the church seeks to keep her members, for he returned to that theme when asked why he believes individuals leave the church.

I think there are a lot of reasons, depends on the individuals.  Some of the reasons are that, in my opinion, in 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.  They want to be religious, but they don’t want to—they just want to be religious enough that their next door neighbors recognize them as being religious, doesn’t make any difference where they go to church, just so they go, they’re considered religious by their peers, and I think there is just a host of reasons why people are like that.  And the pressure that the things they see churches, even churches of Christ, so-called churches of Christ anyway, doing nowadays, big exciting things that denominations do that capture the imagination and they just don’t see that happening in the church and after all, you know, I think, to me, singing, praying, teaching, giving, and communing are exciting aspects of New Testament Christianity.  But, I don’t think a lot of people see it that way.  [I] mean, what can you do with those things?  It captures the imagination and gets their blood all running fast and stuff like that.  To me, doing those things are scripturally correct and proper are exciting and interesting and they hold my attention and my focus, but a lot of people are not like that in my opinion.

 

The participant sees himself as powerless to stem the tide away from entertainment, but he firmly believes such draws people from truth to error.

Working with Inactive Members

            Lane, like Kenneth Welch, the other elder at MacCorkle Road, has not worked with an inactive member in quite some time.

I don’t really recall.  We don’t really have right now, in our community, people who are not coming, who have just completely quit coming.  We have some that don’t—I think miss more than they should with other things—but let’s say somebody whose not coming or the way I define an inactive member and talk to them, it’s been a pretty good while.

 

The other data gathered from Lane support his statement that he has not visited with inactive members recently simply because the MacCorkle Road congregation does not have many.  He believes an elder has a grave responsibility in working with such members.

You know, I guess I feel about the same way about the responsibility toward all members, but there’s a little bit of special responsibility to try to steer those who have erred from the way, I guess, back to where they belong.  I think we’re all concerned about people who drift away like that.  They need to be somehow or other approached so that they can be persuaded to get back in the service.  There’s certainly an obligation there to do that.

 

            Also supporting the researcher’s assertion that Lane is more than willing to work with inactive Christians is Lane’s statement that he does not fear legal action in working with inactive members.

I’m not much afraid of a lawsuit—just talking to somebody that’s unfaithful.  They know they’re unfaithful, most of them, in the first place, and they know why you’re talking to them.  I’m not much afraid of that.  Now if it came to the point where we’d be involved in some withdraw procedures, I wouldn’t say don’t do what you have to do scripturally, but I would say you need to proceed very cautiously and slowly and not do anything irrational where they could come back to you and come up with a lawsuit.  You know, if, well, you know how the lawyers are nowadays, they’ll sue you for anything, but you would have to be very cautious in how you proceeded with that, but just go to somebody that’s just used to come to church and all of a sudden got mad or whatever reason they drift away, I’m not much afraid of a lawsuit in a case like that.

 

The participant, more than likely in response to Marian Guinn’s lawsuit against the Church of Christ in Collinsville, Oklahoma, holds that churches must exercise prudence in withdrawing fellowship from members.  Yet even when withdrawal of fellowship is necessary, Lane deems that churches must do what Scripture requires

Owen Johnson

Becoming a Christian

At seventy-eight years of age, Owen Johnson has served the Midway Church of Christ for forty years as an elder.  Unlike the other participants in this study, Johnson had no previous connection with the churches of Christ prior to his marriage; his family regularly attended Baptist churches in his formative years.  His marriage to a “girl who was a member” of the churches of Christ brought Johnson into contact with the theology of the group, and, for Johnson, “it was just black and white” after he began studying the theology prevalent among churches of Christ.

Becoming an Elder

            Johnson has served two congregations of the churches of Christ as an elder.  The first time he became an elder, the two elders then serving the congregation approached the participant about serving.

The one time was down at the Kanawha River meeting house.   I was very active, and they offered me an opportunity to work with two older elders, which was Brother Wilson and Brother Lee.  And, neither one of them was really what I consider to be a leader, you know, they were old at the time, and so I just more or less become their mouthpiece.  And they wanted me to become an elder and I said, “Well you talk about a novice, I think I would be a novice.”  But finally I agreed to it.

 

A few years after becoming an elder at the Kanawha River congregation, Johnson began preaching for a congregation in Putnam County, West Virginia.  He resigned his position as an elder at Kanawha River, but after a few years of preaching, he returned to the Midway congregation.  The elders there approached him about serving: “Then I came back into Midway in the ‘60s.  And then they got down to the point that they needed an elder in order to have a plurality of elders, so they asked me if I would serve and I said, ‘If the congregation wants, yes.’”

            The congregation wanted Johnson as an elder, and he began to serve.  Although both the Kanawha River and the Midway congregations wanted Johnson to serve, he has mixed views of his qualifications to hold the position: “Well, I had all the biblical qualifications to be an elder then at Midway, but I didn’t really have them at Kanawha River.”  The candidate ponders why Johnson felt unqualified to serve as an elder at Kanawha River, but he felt qualified to serve at Midway.  Three factors could easily contribute to his newfound fitness when he returned to Midway.  Johnson’s service as an elder at Kanawha River could have boosted his confidence and have led to his great assurance that he fit the qualifications for an elder.  Johnson’s preaching ministry could have provided him more experience, knowledge, and maturity by the time he returned to Midway.  The fact that Johnson was ten years older by the time he began pastoring the Midway congregation could have contributed to more maturity.  Likely, all three factors together caused Johnson to see himself fit to be an elder at Midway.

Working with New Converts

            In shepherding the Midway Church of Christ, Johnson would like to establish a mentoring program for new converts.

I personally got carried away with one thing a few years ago, and I still

think it’s a great way to do it,  but I got out voted somewhere along the line.  They said it wasn’t scriptural, but I still like the idea of a brother’s keeper type thing myself. When we baptize someone, I would like to assign somebody to them to be their friend, their buddy, and if nothing else take them fishing or take them to a ball game or something of this nature, and really get to know them and bring them along in the church without them realizing they’re being led.  But sorry to say that didn’t get going too well.  I still think it’s the way to go.

 

 While many within mainstream churches of Christ would likely see Johnson’s suggestion as coming dangerously close to the International Churches of Christ, Johnson’s desire testifies to his concern that new members be incorporated into the congregational fellowship.

Activeness at the Midway Church of Christ

            Johnson’s desire to do something to bring new members “along in the church” likely stems from the lack of activity he sees at the Midway congregation and the desperation he feels over the inertia he witnesses.

The typical member out of the whole congregation—I would say we have about ten that are really active, as I would like to see them.  As I would like to see all of them be, but you’ve got – you’ve always got some who were going to be active in this particular thing the rest of them couldn’t care less.  It’s just something that you can’t inspire in them you can’t get them to do it, so I don’t know I’d say probably ten that’s really active.

 

For Johnson many members do not participate appropriately in the church’s work, and he is at a loss for what to do, for “it’s just something that you can’t inspire in” others.

Working with Inactive Members

            While he cannot inspire activity in others, Johnson seeks to return inactive members to active service in the church. 

Right now I’m having it with two—a man and his wife.  They promise and they promise and they promise, “I’m coming, I’m coming, I’m coming,” but they just don’t come.  So, I’ve spent more time with him and his wife than any other in trying to convert them, because he had all the potential in the world to be really a go getter so far as contacting  people that’s not members of the church.  He was just a bubbly, enthusiastic type fella, and he just got a long great with everybody, but I really don’t know what his problem is.   I’m trying to get to the bottom of it, but I can’t grasp it yet.  But, they offer you excuses and I get to the point that [I say], “You were just making them lie to you.”  So, all you can do it is just pray for them in cases like that, and just hope that they do turn.  But when they left the church that cost us four additional members and two children at the same time, because their children left and he was  real active in the church, and I just don’t know how you cope with something like that.  You try every way you can to reach them, but—be friends with them and during that flood . . . this boy worked with me day and night.  We’d be hauling appliances and taking them to people’s homes and setting them up, and he was just—I didn’t have to say a word.  I mean he jumped right in there and was really—he had all the potential of being a great servant of Christ.  But, I think it’s her.  I don’t think it’s him, but I dunno how to—she’s quite a bit older than he is.  I’m about ready to throw up my hands and turn it over to somebody else.  But I thought I could do it better than them, because we had worked together so much.

 

The couple with whom Johnson is currently working provides numerous excuses as to why they cannot regularly attend the assembly, but they often tell the participant that they cannot attend because they overslept.  The subject has become somewhat inventive in encouraging the couple to attend: “And I’ve tried to get to the telephone and make phone calls and hang up before they answered.  I know that they didn’t oversleep.”

Causes for Inactivity

            While Johnson uses modern technology to assist him in working with inactive Christians, he believes modern technology has also made remaining a faithful Christian more difficult.  When asked why he believed so many fell away from Christianity, the participant said, “TVs, newspapers, radios, things of that nature.  They just have more interest in them than they do than in serving God and saving their soul.”  Modern media have such a hold on nominal Christians, for they do not “realize really the severity of God.”  Modern Christians have been taught about God’s love “altogether and not much about the severe side of him.”

            Johnson attempts to bring inactive Christians face to face with God’s severity by being direct and to the point: “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.’  And try to get the bottom of it, rather than just skirting the issue.”

Use of Church Discipline

            Once Johnson has gotten to “the bottom of it,” he wishes to see the church withdraw from individuals who are unfaithful.

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.

 

When the participant was asked what he would like to change about the way he had worked with inactive Christians in the past, he responded:

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 withdraw 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.

 

Johnson believes such a program would greatly help the church.  In describing why withdrawing fellowship would be effective, he spoke about how he would feel if he were withdrawn from: “I know myself that I wouldn’t want to be an outcast to where friends wouldn’t speak to me or anything else, if I was in that position.”

Structure of Interviews

The candidate first sought to put the elders’ “experience in context” by asking them “to tell as much as possible” about their life history in light of elders and inactive Christians.[2]   The second part of the interviews centered on the concrete details of how these participants have recently dealt with inactive Christians.[3]  The student finally asked the subjects to reflect on the meaning of their experiences.[4]  Now that the reader has seen each participant individually, the writer will provide a holistic presentation of the data.

Life Context

 

            The researcher posed several questions to place the elders’ experiences in context.  He sought to understand their religious upbringing and the relationship they had with elders during their formative years.  The candidate looked at how the subjects became elders and when they believed they met the qualifications to be elders.

Recollections of Earlier Elders

A major theme developed as the candidate explored with the participants their previous experiences with elders.  The elders nearly unanimously recalled those elders quite fondly.  One participant said, “I liked the men themselves.  Of course, they were men I knew, and they were decent people, good people, you know.”  The fondness with which the elders recalled their earlier counterparts became apparent when the researcher asked the participants about what they disliked about the elders in their home churches.  The following comment was typical: “Not that I can think of.  Not that I can recall, because they always were around to help you and assist.”

            The more the candidate spoke with the elders, the more he realized they modeled themselves after the elderships they witnessed in their youths.  In recounting his experience, one elder commented:

One of our elders, though, however, his wife had crippling arthritis, and I can remember so vividly he would actually on Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings, on Sunday mornings he would get her up and he would comb her hair.  He’d fix her breakfast, ‘cause she couldn’t do any—her hands were so crooked and she was in a wheelchair all the time, but he would actually get her up and get her ready and have her hair so pretty and get her ready to come to church.

 

While this elder does not have a wife who needs constant attention, he follows the example in caring for the members of the congregation he serves.  The researcher had scheduled an interview for a Tuesday morning, but the elder called about an hour before the scheduled interview to say he needed to reschedule so that he could mow the lawns of several elderly ladies in the congregation.

            Another participant’s father had a great influence on his life.  He has vivid recollections of catching his father, himself an elder, in prayer.

I suppose that of all the people that I have known in my life in the church, Dad has been the most consistent in his life as an elder and as—I mean he has, you know, there’s not many kids that walk in the living room and catch their dad down on his knees praying for the church, praying for people, praying for the Lord to bless people, you know, and being a young guy growing up, you know, I listened at the door and hear him pray for people and things that, you know, “Lord bless them and give ‘em peace” and, you know, crying his eyes out while he prayed.

 

The theme of peace remerged later in the interview as the respondent discussed working with a lady who had recently become inactive.  He reports the lady “was learning and going and coming to my class and feeling just a little bit of peace,” but her father constantly discouraged her.  She left the congregation as a result.  As his father had desired peace for the sheep entrusted to him, this elder desired the inactive member he referenced to have peace.

            One participant in the study reported that he had a negative experience with an elder in his younger years.  He had become a member of a congregation but then he joined the military.  While in the military, he became inactive and an elder confronted him about the inactivity.

I resented it sometimes.  The elder chewing me out.  This one elder I’m talking about could get pretty rough at times.  He’d get on me, you know.  And I just resented it to a certain extent.  He just chewed me out.  He told me how I needed to straighten out and live right.

 

Because of his negative experience, this elder attempts to work with inactive members in a kind and caring manner. 

I don’t believe in going to them and chewing them out like that elder did me.   I just try to be persuasive with them and try to do it in a nice way. Like I said that one elder really chewed me out one side and down the other.  I don’t do that because I resented it to a certain extent. 

 

            Elders interviewed for this study appear to model the elders who guided them as youth.  If the elders had a positive experience, they desire to pattern their pastoral leadership after the positive example.  On the other hand, elders who had negative experiences in their youth attempt to learn from the experiences and not repeat the same errors in their pastoral duties.

Becoming Elders

The elders in this study became elders in two distinct ways.  A couple of participants set their hearts “on being an overseer” (1 Tm 3:1).  When asked how he became an elder, one participant replied:

Well, I wanted to be, and I enjoy working with people . . . I’ve dealt with people all my life, even on my job which I was a supervisor where I worked in the latter, ten, twelve years.  I worked with the state, and I like to work with people.  I enjoy working with people and I got along well with people.  I can talk to people.  I can reason with people and listen, and that’s important to listen to people’s problems, and I just felt like I wanted to be an elder so I could help people.

 

This elder puts his desire to help people into action as he works with individuals who have become inactive.  The participant recounted how he had talked with an inactive member the week before the interview, a process in which he regularly engages.

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 them.

 

Other elders came into a leadership position because the church requested they

become elders.  One participant, for example, recalled how the church asked him to consider the position of an elder in a men’s business meeting.

The church was pretty big back when I became an elder—even bigger before I did, because shortly after the Korean War and everything, you know, there was lots of activity around the Valley, a lot of people moving in and working at the plants and a lot of stuff like that.  And, they didn’t have any elders when I moved there when we moved there in ’56 and we got some men that become very mature and sorta grew up in the position, I guess, where people thought we were qualified and we—somebody proposed that we ought to have elders and some of the men started looking around and said, “Well, here’s four that we think maybe can be elders today,” so we did.  We went through the process, announcing it to the church, and considering elders and some interviews—there, there were some people who wanted to talk with us about, various ones of us about questions that they had and stuff like that.

 

Other elders reported that the church asked them to become elders when the church’s current elders began to increase in age.  One elder, who also serves as the congregation’s preacher, reported:

I was approached by the elders . . . after I had been there probably—I’m going to say seven or eight years—I had been preaching there at that time.  It might have been a little bit more than that.  And, they talked to me about whether I would also serve as an elder in the congregation.  I had some reservations about it, because, you know, preacher/elder combination is not always the best.  You know, sometimes it can lead to some problems, but I felt like that I needed to do it for the benefit of the congregation . . . The elder who has died in the meantime was beginning to get in somewhat poor health, and we had concerns about the fact that he was not really capable in providing the sort of direction, so that’s basically how I did [become an elder].

 

            The student detected only small differences in how elders dealt with inactive members based upon how they became elders.  The elders who desired to become elders were slightly more likely to characterize working with inactive Christians as a joy than were elders asked to serve by the congregation.  One participant who desired the position long before he became an elder said the following when queried about his feelings when working with inactive members, “Oh, I feel good within my heart.”  The elders who were asked by the congregation to serve did not speak of the work in terms of joy but of obligation.  One said:

I think that’s what one of the major roles of an elder is, to be concerned about inactive Christians . . . I think that if that’s part of the flock, then, you know, then you’ve got responsibility to do the best 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.

 

The student expected more of a differentiation.  As he looked through interview transcripts, he anticipated seeing elders who desired the office to speak only in terms of joy and elders who were asked to serve to speak only in terms of responsibility.  While no participant asked by the church to serve as an elder spoke of working with inactive Christians as a joy, the elders who desired to serve did speak of the work as a responsibility as well as a joy.  The full context of the above quote where the elder reported feeling good in working with inactive Christians is as follows: “Oh, I feel good within my heart, because I’ve fulfilled my obligation from my standpoint.”

These data may illustrate one of two points.  The data indicate a slight difference in the attitudes portrayed by elders working with inactive Christians depending upon whether the elder sought the position or whether the elder was asked to take the position.  However, these data may illustrate simply that all elders in this study are cognizant of the responsibilities inherent in their task, a responsibility the candidate demonstrated in Chapter II.

Concrete Details

            The researcher discussed with the elders he interviewed details of the congregation where they serve so that he might ascertain the extent to which the problem of inactive Christians had permeated the congregations being studied. Several themes emerged from the data.

Activity in the Congregation

The elders had a uniform concern that the members in the churches they serve are not as motivated in their service to Christ as the elders would like.  One elderly gentlemen reflected over his years as a preacher and elder and commented:

We’ve got a full-time preacher.  But, we haven’t grown numerically—financially side of it we’ve grown—we’re supporting a preacher all right.  But, I’d rather see it the other way and grow numerically . . . . Well, it’s getting bad right now.  Right now it’s getting bad.  People are not attending like they should.  Like I said, there were only fifty there yesterday morning, and I’d say a year or two ago, we’d had seventy.  We’re losing our young people.  We’re losing them.

 

Another, who has served as an elder for a number of years, said:

How active is the typical member?  Well, if a good number of them could get out of bed or out of the nursing homes, they might be pretty active.  I don’t know.  We’ve—I would like to see them a lot more active.  We do have a lot of old people that just aren’t physically up to it, and in this day and time, the young people, both the husband wife works almost exclusively, what younger couples we’ve got, and they are limited with time and I don’t like those kinds of situations, but again, with them being almost forced into working now with the economy the way it is, I don’t know what we can do about it.  I would like to see a lot more active people, but our people are basically older and they just can’t participate in a lot of things that I would like to see going on, ‘cause they can’t get out at night and stuff like that and can’t do a lot of walking, a lot of them, so, and the younger people are bogged down with working, working overtime and one thing or another, so in my opinion, they’re not as active as I would like to see them, yet I think there are reasons for that, some things that are holding them back some.  And again, we’ve got some that pretty, a few that are pretty undependable sometimes with attendance and stuff like that is concerned.

 

            Although the elders recognize the situation in their congregations might be far from what God would desire, they feel helpless to institute change.  The one who mentioned the recent hiring of a full-time minister had sought tirelessly to find just the right man to work with the congregation.  He believes they have the right man, but the situation has not improved.  The other elder recognizes the factors weighing down activity in his congregation are out of his control, namely, the age of many members and economic circumstances that require members to work more at their places of employment than at the church.

Dealing with Inactive Christians

When asked how they dealt with inactive members, the elders responded in two distinct ways.  Three elders, who serve the same congregation, have a method for watching for inactivity.  One of the three, the first interviewed by the researcher, described the method.

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 effort to contact them—whether it be phone, card, visit, and see if we can, you know, generate interest.

 

One of the elders developed the system, and the researcher asked him why he felt such a procedure was necessary.  He answered:

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 [the other two elders] 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.

 

These three elders recognized a need to oversee the needs of the congregation, and they seek diligently to do so.

            The other elders in the study did not report any systematic method in keeping watch “over all the flock of which the Holy Spirit” had made them overseers (Acts 20:28).  However, all but two other participants had no difficulty in naming individuals who had become inactive and discussing the efforts he had made to reclaim them.  As explained previously, the two elders who did have trouble naming inactive Christians serve a congregation with a lower number of inactive members than the other congregations examined in the study.  One elder said:

Well, right now I’m having it with two—a man and his wife.  They promise and they promise and they promise, “I’m coming.  I’m coming.  I’m coming.”  But they just don’t come.  So, I’ve spent more time with him and his wife than any other in trying to convert them, because he had all the potential in the world to be really a go-getter so far as contacting people that’s not members of the church.  He was just a bubbly enthusiastic type fella, and he just got along great with everybody, but I really don’t know what his problem is.

 

            The elders in this study approach inactive Christians from two perspectives, therefore.  One group makes systematic efforts to keep track of members who are moving closer and closer to inactivity.  Others make no systematic efforts, but they are neither less concerned nor less involved in those who fall away.  The size of the congregations the elders studied serve likely caused this finding.  Only one congregation averages above sixty-five on Sunday morning.  Had the student interviewed elders from larger congregations he suspects more participants would have reported systematic efforts to keep track of active and inactive members.  The size of the congregations these elders serve allows the elders to know quite quickly on Sundays which members are present and which are missing.

Thoughts of Inactive Christians

The elders under consideration unanimously viewed inactive members with great concern, but some struggled with terminology.  When asked what he thought of when he heard the phrase “inactive Christian,” one gentleman replied:

I didn’t think of it necessarily as somebody who wasn’t coming to church, but people who were attending who weren’t doing anything.  That’s what I think of an “inactive Christian.”  ‘Cause actually I don’t consider one who isn’t coming a Christian really.  But they’re members.

 

When the candidate asked another elder about that statement, he got the heart of the matter.  He said, “Well, I think they’re Christians.  I think they’re not faithful Christians, they’ve been Christians at least.  I think they’re not right with God.  They’re not doing what they ought to be doing.”  In a very real sense, what terminology the elders or the researcher place upon one who is “not right with God” does not matter.  What matters is the state of his or her soul.

            Another elder had difficulty grasping the terminology used in the study.  When asked how many inactive members the congregation he serves currently has, he replied, “How many inactive members?  Okay, you’ve got, you’ve got a good question, because how do you define ‘inactive’?”  The candidate promised to provide a definition but only after the elder did so first.  He gave a definition quite close to the one used in this study when he said:

One definition would be a person who has been a member and you haven’t seen ‘em for years.  Another person that I would consider inactive is a person who shows up once a month.  Now, there may be another term for that person, but to me, if you only show up once a month you’re almost inactive. 

 

            These elders’ responses may point to the need for some standardized definition of “inactive Christian” across the churches of Christ.  Because congregations of the churches of Christ are autonomous, no council or synod can provide a definition all congregations must follow.  However, several writers and publications have influence across multiple congregations.  Perhaps if these writers or publications provided a definition, congregations across the brotherhood would adopt the same definition.

            Yet, the student has already argued that terminology is not terribly crucial.  Whether elders call one an “inactive Christian” or “inactive member” or “erring Christian” or anything else does not matter as long as they engage in efforts to reclaim that individual.

Most Recent Encounter with Inactive Christians

The elders were asked to describe their most recent interaction with a member of the congregation they serve who had become inactive.  Every elder discussed the frustration he felt in talking with the wayward member.  As he began to cry, one elder said this about his last encounter with an inactive member:

Oh, I feel good within my heart, because I’ve fulfilled my obligation from my standpoint, and . . . but, having hopes that she’s going to be there and she’s going to start coming to worship the Lord.  But then when she didn’t, I kinda get disappointed again.  What did I do wrong, maybe?  I feel—I’m a person who takes a lot to heart when I know people know to do good and don’t.  It bothers me.  And I guess if it didn’t, then I wouldn’t be in the right frame of mind.

 

            The elders in this study realized they needed to work with members who have lost interest in the church, and they desired to help restore such members.  However, they easily became discouraged when they visited with inactive members and those Christians do not return to the active service of the church. 

Role of Elders in Working with Inactive Christians

The elders in this study were quite cognizant of the responsibility of elders to work with wayward members.  One participant said:

It’s a terrific responsibility. It looks to me that there’s no glory in being an elder.  It’s just a terrific responsibility.  And I don’t think a person could really know what it is until they are an elder.  It is a terrific responsibility.  We’ll be held responsible as to how we’ve handled that position.

 

Other participants echoed his sentiments as they spoke specifically about working with inactive members.  One specifically said:

An elder has a responsibility for every single member of the congregation—that’s what elders are supposed to be doing to oversee and watching out for the welfare of the congregation, and obviously if a person is no longer faithful, coming to church, isn’t participating in the worship and so forth, that person is putting his soul or her soul in jeopardy and they are lost in that situation, and that’s the way I look at it.  So, I certainly believe that there’s a great obligation there as far as an elder.  An elder ought to have a lot of interest in every member, you know, but certainly toward those who are inactive.

 

            The elders in this study did not wish to wash their hands of inactive members or to pass the responsibility off to the preacher or other members.  They realized that as shepherds of the flock they needed to take an active role in reaching those who wandered into inactive service.

Meaning of the Experience

            To help the elders reflect on the meaning of their experiences with inactive Christians, the researcher asked them what they had learned from working with inactive Christians and what they would like to change about the way they had worked with inactive Christians in the past.  The candidate did not receive nearly as much data at this point as he did at the other points in the interviews.  However, data received allow the researcher to draw a few conclusions.

Learning from Working with Inactive Christians

The elders have gained two important insights in working with former members.  They have learned that the quicker they act when a member becomes inactive, the greater likelihood exists for bringing the member back to the congregation, a finding confirmed in the literature review of Chapter II.  One elder said, “I guess probably the sooner that you see that they’re not a part of the assembly and you approach them, the better off it’s going to be.”  The elders have also learned that what may reach one inactive member may not reach another.  One participant added his thought:

I always, as far as I’m personally concerned, I always feel like there are certain avenues and things you can go to with certain individuals that you can’t go with others.  And, you need to be careful.  I myself have always tried to make it a practice to try to figure out just how I, in advance, just how I need to approach and deal with them.

Changes They Would Make

The elders made three different responses when asked what they would like to change about their dealings with inactive Christians in the past.  One elder lamented his lack of time to help individuals return to the active service of the church:

There’s not really anything I would like to change . . . The only thing I’d like to do, personally, is just to be able to do more of it.  Um, I mean, I’d like to be able to take, if I had every spare moment, but it’s a problem of finding spare moments, or you know, how do you allocate your time?

 

Another elder wished he could answer the question fully so that he could work more effectively in the future—“If I knew that answer, then I would work on that more.  I guess I really don’t know the answer to that.”  Another elder regretted that at times he waited too long before contacting wayward members.

Probably one of the things that I regret at times in dealing with people that were in the process of drifting away is maybe not moving quickly enough because sometimes, you know, we kinda tend to hold back thinking, “Well things may turn around and they’ll get things straightened out, you know, and if I say anything to them, it may push them the other direction.”  But I’m afraid sometimes we let people go, slip too far away before we get serious about it, before we take action toward . . . If they get to a certain point sometimes, they’ve lost interest.

 

            These answers have the common theme of the elder’s concern for their inactive members.  An elder would not lament that he did not have enough time to work with inactive members unless he realized he needed to work with those members.  A participant would not wish to know what he could do differently unless he had genuine concern for those drifting away.  An elder would not regret he had not moved quickly enough in the past unless he realized individuals’ souls were in jeopardy.

Conclusion

            This chapter has provided data gleaned from the interviews conducted for this study.  The interviews asked the participants to place their story in their total life context, their present experiences and what they hoped would be different in the future.  The next chapter will summarize the dissertation, draw conclusions from the data, and propose future research.



                1. All names of individuals, congregations, and communities have been changed to preserve the confidentiality of the study’s participants.  Additional details may also be changed to mask the participants’ identities.

                2. Seidman, 11.

                3. Ibid., 12.

                4. Ibid.


PreachingHelps.com: Copyright © Dr. Justin Imel