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What's Become of Sally?
It is easy to focus on church newcomers, but do we really care very much about those who quietly drop out?

We're all familiar with the ritual Sunday morning "welcome" to newcomers and visitors from the pulpit, the signing of the guest-book, and the after-service greeting with congregational joviality and hand-shaking. Often, this is followed up with phone calls, invitations and visits. In church, we are good at heeding Paul's advice to "entertain strangers."

… a simple, "We've missed you;" "Let's get together;" or "Can we help?" will bring tremendous healing.

But who says "good-bye?" What happens when your ordinary, every-day member stops coming to church? Sally may wonder, "Who's missing me now?" as she fades out of sight.

Churches are busy places, and it's easy to focus more on the newcomers. As often as not, we put off, forget, or just don't care very much about contacting those who quietly disappear. Occasionally, someone may be curious about Sally, but how many follow it up with an interested phone call or visit?

People leave churches for many reasons. Sally may be ill, emotionally hurt, or just uninterested. Or she may be like the faithful, but now frail, 90-year-old church member, no longer able to attend her life-long church, just at the end of her block. For an endless time, no one phoned, visited, or even waved on their way past. Then finally, they remembered, and mailed a request for money. And, the worst insult of all, addressed her as an adherent!

Research shows that thousands of people have dropped out of churches in the past few years. Many of them were hard-working members who had given years of service to their church. The suggested reasons vary from controversy over moral issues, to debate over inclusive language, to theology. Some assume it's the new minister; others say it's the old one. Some wonder if it's the new financial plans, the rummage sale, or the tempo of the hymns. But how many of us have taken the time to replace these assumptions with the facts? Too often we turn a deaf ear or refer the missing Sally to a committee.

There are a lot of hurting ex-members, respected people of worth, who need to know they are valued by us. They need to know that we care about their loss.

Church members everywhere are no strangers to compassion and courtesy. But we hesitate to seek out these people because we fear possible confrontation. Yet, a simple, "We've missed you;" "Let's get together;" or "Can we help?" will bring tremendous healing.

If we really want to belong to a user-friendly church, there's a Manual, ever-ready for use. It comes with easy-to-read directions and yields lessons on such things as the Lost Sheep and the Good Samaritan. We may find we have to learn, at first hand, about turning the other cheek, or to absorb such Scriptural lessons as Old King Solomon's "understanding heart." But there may be unexpected rewards, insight, or a new friend. Whatever the outcome, we'll give that missing person an assurance that as the church, we are there for them. Then Sally may feel that she does matter, after all.

Ethel Gillingham and her husband attend West Vancouver United Church in British Columbia.

Originally published in the Fellowship Magazine, June 1997.




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