Our church is planning an anniversary celebration this month and part of the planning is for us to have about twice as many people as we had last Sunday. As I thought about who might return I realized that many of them are still local. It seems more interesting to think about why they left us than why they are coming back for one day.
Your church has probably had some upsets in the past 20 years or so. It’s a rare church that doesn’t have a few pastor turnovers during two decades; those transitions are unsettling. Most churches have had some financial hard times and drops in the attendance during that period. If you are involved enough to actually have friends at your church you’ve likely disagreed with somebody over something during your time as a member. Disappointment, discouragement and disagreement are three big reasons I’ve seen for church members leaving but staying local. Is that you?
Setbacks in local churches are as old as local churches. Read Revelation 2 and 3 or one of Paul’s letters for examples. Your disappointments seem unique to you and mine to me but they are probably not. Let me share a few questions I ask myself during challenging days in my relationship with my church.
Am I right to be as discouraged as I am? Be fair here; sometimes a person is just in a bad mood, or even wrong to be upset. If the actual problem is my attitude the situation won’t change because I stay home or sit at the back of some other church on Sundays. My spiritual health is not determined by the health of my church.
What exactly do I want to change? Most of our disappointments are with people. Do we need that person to leave? Repent? Change personality? Apologize? This is often a hard question to answer. I can get out of sorts but can’t say what I’d consider to be a solution. Again, that points inward. It’s not reasonable to expect another person to move aside to suit us, and it’s not usually true that an apology will make us happy.
Who do I need to forgive, or apologize to? I nod inwardly when someone says, “I’ll forgive but I probably won’t forget.” If forgiveness actually takes place, the offense still did happen and lives in the permanent record. So what? We won’t bring it up again or do things based on the former offense if we’ve forgiven it. A sincere reconciliation is a commitment to move on and to do intentional things that will strengthen the relationship. You can’t fix the other person but you can stop pouting, and you can make amends for wrongs you have done to another. The air smells cleaner after you do that.
What is the impact of my leaving? Maybe there are some things you do that will be neglected. If you’re a tither your departure will be felt by the church finances. If you neither give nor serve, your seat is still empty and those who greet you each week will miss you. This latter thing, the participation of an immature Christian, is not inconsequential. Discouragement flourishes amidst dropping numbers like mold in a leaky bathroom. You’ll also establish a habit of leaving rather than mending relationships. Don’t leave because staying is harder or you’ll be a wimp forever.
Is my leaving an act of hostility? Sometimes it is; and I can name names. If you feel unappreciated, maybe somebody will be sorry your gifts are no longer around. If you have been slighted or insulted, that person will be stung to see the consequences of his sin. If you don’t like something the church has done maybe they’ll see their mistake when you hold back your tithe or quit your Sunday School class. I am ashamed to entertain those thoughts. I’ve been in churches where some have left in anger. No one has repented and no church business has been rescinded because someone else joins My Couch Community Church.
A church is a body, a family, a connection that we didn’t select the way we choose from a menu in a restaurant. Part of God’s molding of our lives is done in fellowship with people with different gifts, bad habits and weird tastes in music. You dodge those annoying people and you dodge the sanctifying work of God given to them for your good.
I know that some disappointments in churches are objectively disappointing. My point is not that anyone who gets upset is making up an offence. These things come like sickness comes to your body. Think about how to heal those problems rather than detaching the offending member. It is rare that withdrawing from our church results in greater godliness in our lives. Pay the difficult price for reconciliation and healing. Maybe you’ll look back on this season as the time your church membership became more a blessing to everyone, including you.