In the not-so-distant Baptist past, all Sunday services ended with altar calls, in which people came forward to make public professions of Christian faith or to become part of a local congregation.

But it was also common, during the “invitation hymn,” for church members to come forward and huddle with the minister for a few quiet, discreet minutes. The pastor would announce that they had come forward to “rededicate their life to Christ” and then ask those assembled to offer them hugs and prayers.

“That’s something that we’ve lost, somewhere along the way. We need to regain that confessional part of the faith,” said the Rev. Thom Rainer, head of LifeWay Christian Resources at the Southern Baptist Convention’s headquarters in Nashville.

“It used to be common for people to go forward, rededicate their lives and get right with the Lord. … It was a chance to tell the pastor you needed help. It was important that our people knew they could do that.”

The alternative is much worse, he stressed: If believers don’t know how to reach out for help, or if they think they will be harshly judged if they do, they usually remain silent before using the exit door. For keeps.

The bottom line is shocking, said Rainer. If most churches could regain just the members who fled over the span of a decade — for personal or private reasons, as opposed to dying or moving out of town — worship attendance would triple.

“We have a tremendous back-door problem, among Southern Baptists and in churches in general,” he said. “I see no signs that this is going to get better and it’s pretty easy to see — as we move from the baby boomers to the millennials — that it could get much worse.” Week after week, Rainer raises these kinds of issues on social media, with thousands of followers. One recent essay called “Six Early Warning Signs of Church Dropouts” dealt with trends that are relatively easy for leaders to spot — such as a decline in a member’s attendance in services, a decision to quit a small-group ministry or a sudden cut in financial support for the church. Most pastors also know when people are involved in fights inside the church, perhaps linked to changes in worship style or the departure of a staff member. But the most destructive issues are the ones people work the hardest to hide, which he grouped under two headings: “family problems” and “moral failure.” Church members often become entangled in both at the same time.

The fallout, in pews and pulpits, was especially severe this past fall, when hackers hit the Ashley Madison website, which promised to help customers arrange sexual affairs — with complete anonymity. In the first days after the scandal, Rainer said he was bombarded with calls, emails and text messages.

“I was overwhelmed with the sheer quantity of these messages. Pastors wanted input on what to do, because they had members or deacons on these lists. … There were church members who wanted to know what to do because their pastor or one of their other ministers had been exposed,” he said. “We were talking about a national epidemic.”

Most of these congregations had no clear, articulated strategies for how to deal with messy discipline issues, said Rainer.

For example, while the public stereotype is that churches are obsessed with sexual sins, the truth is that it’s relatively rare for church leaders to address adultery, premarital sex, divorce, pornography and other hot-button topics in the pulpit, in Bible studies or in small-group ministries, he said. The most common “pastoral” response — due to privacy concerns — is to try to keep “sweeping all of these problems under the rug.”

This sends a terrible message to hurting people whose secrets are weighing them down.

“If your only goal is to keep things quiet, that means your people don’t even know that it’s possible to repent and come all the way back” into the church, he said.

“If the goal is to keep things quiet, then ultimately you have to get rid of anybody who has problems. They just have to leave. Is that what we want to keep telling people?”

Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.


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