Seventh-day Adventist Church officials in Russia and Eastern Europe are extending an invitation to missing members and, in some cases, publically asking for their forgiveness -- it's all part of the region's plan to welcome back inactive members.
Launched in 2008, Return Home is accelerating as church leaders from Ukraine to Siberia seek to find and connect with missing members before a major review of church membership records next year.
The region has in recent years conducted isolated membership audits -- between 1992 and 2010, leadership removed some 130,000 members from official records. But during regional year-end business meetings this month, delegates voted to conduct the region's first organized, region-wide membership audit.
Where routine membership audits have focused on removing members who have died, emigrated or otherwise transferred membership, this membership review will emphasize so-called "missing" members, many of whom accepted the Adventist faith following one of the many public evangelism events in the region, but stopped attending shortly afterward.
While public events will continue to play a key outreach role in Euro-Asia, regional leadership is urging responsible evangelism, where fledgling members are welcomed into a church family and discipled for ministry.
"Membership audits are not just to check our records, but to evaluate our circle of interest and responsibility," Guillermo Biaggi, president of the church in Euro-Asia, told delegates gathered on the campus of church-run Bucha College.
Adventist world church Secretary G.T. Ng, who attended the meetings, commended the region's commitment to honest membership records and urged local leaders not to avoid the task because they worry their reputation or representation is at stake.
"There is no losing face in honesty," Ng said. "Surely we take pride in our work, but our pride should ultimately be based on something more solid than what we have recorded in the books."
Ng, who until 2006 served as secretary for the church's Southern Asia-Pacific region, oversaw a membership audit there, which he remembers was painful and painstaking, leading to an eventual loss of 300,000 members. The church in South America saw similar losses when they conducted a membership audit shortly afterward. While discouraging, beginning again with realistic numbers ultimately led to membership growth in both regions, Ng said.
A membership audit can be a reality check for both church leaders and local church members, who realize that their actions or apathy -- while deliberate or not -- may have turned new believers away, said Mikhael Kaminskiy, director of the Office of Assessment and Program Evaluation for the church in Euro-Asia.
Changing the climate in the pews, Kaminskiy said, is a top priority of Return Home. Missing members are unlikely to "return home" if they never felt at home in church to begin with. "Be friendly, be open, smile, welcome people. Don't be hurtful or judgmental," said Kaminskiy, who also serves as the region's vice president.
Vladimir Krupskyi, secretary for the Adventist Church in Euro Asia, agrees. "Changes must take place inside the church so it becomes attractive to the community," he said. "The church must solve its own problems before it can solve the community's problems."
Missing members who felt marginalized after baptism will soon find a letter of apology from the region's former president, Artur Stele, in their mailboxes. The letter, which asks forgiveness for past hurts or neglect, also includes a personal invitation to give church another chance.
Many of the region's congregations are also regularly praying for missing members by name, visiting them and seeking to reconnect and build relationships. Pastors in Euro-Asia are encouraged to spend at least 10 minutes per Sabbath worship service raising awareness about Return Home, Kaminskiy said.
Recently, while her pastor read the names of missing members for special prayer, a lay delegate from Moldova said a former drug addict on the list raised his hand when they read his name. "You can cross me off, I've come home," he said.
Regional church leadership will provide resources -- including a sample sermon on Christian love, forgiveness and acceptance -- for every pastor who wants to prepare for Return Home, Kaminskiy said. "This should be part of services, worships and small groups. We don't want to leave Return Home to run itself."
Still, some churches aren't yet involved in the program. Kaminskiy admits that getting an initiative from top administration to take root at the local level remains one of the Adventist Church's "weak areas." He hopes emphasizing the program at the region's major business meetings will help "generate interest," especially among leaders at the conference administrative level, who have the most contact with local churches.
Once leaders begin auditing church membership next year, Return Home won't end. Kaminskiy sees the programs running parallel to each other, indefinitely.
So does Victor Alekseenko, president of the Adventist Church in Ukraine. "We don't want to just disfellowship missing members, reconcile the numbers. We want to bring them back," he said.