Saturday, May 16, 2009

Revolving Church Doors

A blog I read observes that as people come through the front door of a church, others are leaving through the back. The author asks its readers some questions about this:
Have you left your childhood denomination for another? If so, why? (move to different state, went with spouse's denomination, better youth group for your kids elsewhere, change in theological understanding, problems in the church, etc)

Is the church in general not concerned about retaining members, but in evangelism of the lost only?

What can churches do to stem the out going tide?

Do you tend to see yourself as a Baptist, Methodist, Nazarene, Assemblies of God, Presbyterian, etc. or as just a "believer"?
I am choosing to answer here.

I was raised a Seventh-day Adventist. While I have great respect for the biblical training I received growing up, am grateful for the love of God planted early in my life and stay connected to some of the people there, I do have issues with some of their theology. I left the church when I was 17.

I attended another church, non-denominational, for close to 25 years. The teaching and music was top-notch and I dearly love the people. But as I began to grow spiritually, it became evident that the church and I had different priorities.

For the past five and a half years I've been part of the Vineyard, in three different congregations, but I have been influenced by it for close to 15 years. The congregation I am now a member of has a number of strengths I admire:
  • Focus on the homeless and poorest of the poor
  • Incredible emphasis on prayer and not just talk about prayer
  • An expectation that God is present and delights to meet with and talk to us.
  • A willingness to step out of "the box" and be flexible about the non-essentials
  • A commitment to the Word of God
  • An acceptance of people exactly as they are with a passion to bring them into full relationship with God.
I wish we all could see ourselves as believers, stressing the common truths we share rather than the disagreements that divide us. We serve God poorly if we don't.

I see people leaving churches because of theological changes, disgruntlement and personal grudges, location issues, meeting the needs of their children, dissillusionment with their church and more. There are some who are determined to stay in their churches, despite negative changes they see happening, because they want to continue to be God's light in that church. I admire those.

I think, however, that the biggest reason for people moving churches is that we are a consumer society, adept at shopping in all aspects of our lives. Church is no different. I sadly notice that the bulk of those who call themselves Christian are Christian in name only--for whatever reason. I suspect that these are the primary group from which come the constant moving and shifting in and out of churches. It is a serious problem.

Why are there so many uncommitted? The road that Jesus leads us on is a hard one, not easy. Far too many cringe at the demands that come with commitment to God and far too many pastors and leaders are part of this group. In Norway, for example, being a pastor is a state appointment and being a believer is not a requirement of the job. I remember too, hearing about one well-known TV evangelist who fell from grace admitting later that he had never read the Bible through and now he was discovering from his reading of it, how unbiblical so many of his previous statements and beliefs had been.

We often think that Jesus' parable about the wheat and tares growing together until the harvest is a story about Christians and non-Christians. Perhaps it's about Christians only--those committed to God vs. those simply maintaining the appearance thereof. If so, the Master's command that the two be allowed to grow together till harvest makes sense because truthfully, which of us really know who is committed to God and who isn't?

What can churches do to stem the out-going tide? I believe the only solution is for leaders and congregants alike to focus on and build their own relationships with God. As this relationship deepens, and they (we) become more connected to God, our behaviours and actions, and those of our churches, will reflect that.

In the article, "How to Shrink a Church" Mark Galli posits that people leaving churches is a good thing.
Many pastors and lay leaders recognize that they are in a superficially successful church, and that it's time to introduce the harder edges of the gospel. But how? How do we get comfortable people to listen to a gospel that includes a lot of discomfort? How do you deepen discipleship without introducing despair? How do you insist firmly on faithfulness without becoming legalistic?

Most important, how do you manage the loss in membership? That will happen. The more strictly you adhere to the teachings of Jesus, the smaller the church will "grow." ...one of the most crucial skills for pastors and church lay leaders is to manage church decline when people are leaving because they see, finally, what Jesus is asking of them. This is not a job for the faint of heart, and will require great wisdom to manage resources, personnel, and morale in such a time.

Evangelicals have become the unmatched experts in church growth, but often end up with a truncated gospel. If we are to live into the full counsel of God in the years to come, I believe we'll need a few experts in church shrink.
Makes sense to me!

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