(Fourteenth in a series.)
Despite the past history of one of our churches disciplining a member who failed to observe the Lord’s Supper, that was then. It wasn’t now, and had I read that 1915 entry from the session minutes to one of our elders, it would have been shocking. “They excommunicated him for not attending the Lord’s Supper? You sure that was the real reason?”
In the American church today, the simple neglect of corporate worship is no burden on our consciences. We can’t imagine any session keeping track of who’s missing, let alone excommunicating him. Thus this decision of the Rosedale session to begin to visit our inactive members was no small thing.
The plan was to go out to the homes of those on our membership roles who never attended. There were maybe ten men needing a visit. If it was a family or older couple, the elders planned to speak to the man of the house. The elders felt they should be the ones to do the visiting. They understood the potential for the visits being resented and they wanted the pastor to be protected from this. So they divided up the names according to who knew this or that man best, and started the visits.
There were some whose immediate response was resentment and the news spread quickly.
Most of the Rosedale congregation lived on farms within a couple miles of the church-house. There’s a lot of back-and-forth between farm families. You share fencerows. You help each other put up hay. You share planters, rakes, and bailers. Waiting your turn at the co-op, you talk weather. After the tornado, everyone helps walk the neighbor’s fields picking up sheet metal blown off his buildings and silo. You rent fields from his sister and, if it’s not a schoolday, your son helps him milk. Neighbors come to mourn family deaths with you. After the funeral, they help carry the coffin out back to the grave where, following the committal and benediction, the men talk and take turns with the shovel while the women make lunch and the children play tag among the tombstones.
All the men go over to Cambria to have Chuck the barber cut their hair. Normally the talk flows freely. It’s a congenial place, but after you started your visits, when you walk in, the talk dries up. One of the men you visited said you were over at his place putting on airs, asking him why he’s not coming to church?
Sounds bad, but remember our purpose wasn’t to harass people or stick our noses into their private business. The elders were going out to ask the souls under our care if they had been hurt or offended in some way we didn’t know—was that why they never were in worship? Was there something we could do to help them return to church? The elders weren’t out to show their neighbors how much more religious they were. They were out visiting because faithful participation in worship is the main tool God uses to awaken our consciences and lead us to repentance and faith in His Son.
Concerning church participation and worship, nothing less than eternal life is at stake. How could we be faithful shepherds if we didn’t go out and find the lost, bringing them back home to safety? If a couple of the men resented an elder coming after them, why would that surprise anyone? The entire concept of our Lord’s story of the shepherd going after one lost sheep is that the sheep wandered—and sheep wander because they want to. Still, it is the shepherd’s job to redirect the straying and lost sheep regardless of his desire to be found.
Happily, most of the men we visited didn’t resent us. They thanked us for coming and reassured us that no one had offended them. They’d just fallen out of the habit. They admitted they really should come to church and said they’d try to do better, to which we responded, “Great, hope we’ll see you this Sunday,” and said our goodbyes. A few came back, but most didn’t.
Only one or two resented the visits, letting us and others know of their resentment.
That was the first year. We did the visits and one or two families returned to the sheepfold. The elders rejoiced that any at all had returned, and I remember what joy I had in the particular family whose response was so humble and who did, in fact, come back to God’s house.
A year later, it was time to review our membership roll once more, and we noted that seven or eight of the men we’d visited the year before had not returned. Six or seven of them had promised to, but failed in their promise, so we divided up the names again and set out to visit them a second time. Happily, these second visits were well-received by almost everyone, with only one man showing resentment.
Sadly, it was our clerk of session, Don Jerred, who took the brunt of that resentment. He was cursed. Don had been in favor of the visits from the beginning, so the cursing didn’t cause him to waver in his commitment to our fulfilling our duty with these men.
A year later, it was again time to review our membership roll. We noted that this man who had been so hostile the previous year had made no slightest effort to return. We discussed our next step. The elders knew the man well. In the end, they decided to change his formal status from “active” to “inactive” member. Don volunteered to go and inform him of this next step in the session’s admonitions of him.
(Fourteenth in a series.)