Friday, January 13, 2012

A Word of Caution to Church Hoppers

Communities that are “well-churched” are fertile soil for the church hopper.  I know this because I’ve been a pastor for more than 25 years.  Santa Rosa and Escambia counties have a lot of churches.  This comes with blessings and challenges.  First of all, the Church is able to exert great influence and perform countless acts of service to our larger community.  But in a well-churched area, the pattern is often a rotation of church members.  That’s the downside.  The sheep sample a variety of shepherds and pastures.  They flit from church to church like shoppers go from Wal-Mart to Target to Kmart looking for the best deal.  Perhaps it’s just human nature to take good things for granted when surrounded by so many blessing from God, but this practice of church hopping is unhealthy.

Many pastors would be willing to admit (myself included) that most people leave churches for superficial reasons.  The span covers anything from musical style, a change in service times, to carpet color.  Sometimes people leave because of disappointment with the pastor or staff not meeting their expectations.  Some leave because they can’t (or won’t) get along with other church members.  Living in community with other believers always tests the integrity of one’s walk with Christ.  We are not called to walk alone.  Yet walking together is a challenge.  Usually, the most mature stick it out while the immature find a justification to leave for another church.

Over the years we have had many people join us at PCC who came from other churches.  When that happens, I always try to make sure that they left their previous church on good terms and for good reasons.  Often, I will pick up the phone and call the other pastor.  For some of these people, leaving their previous church has been an agonizing experience.  We’ve had people come to us from churches they have attended all of their lives.  This is not the typical church hopper, these are solid people.  When they arrive at PCC, I know they need time to work things out and adjust, but I encourage them to not linger too long in their pain because we all need a Biblical community in our walk of faith.

But then there is the church hopper.  Our area is plagued with them….

The problem of church hopping is a symptom of the overall instability of our culture.  It is a reflection of a deeply troubling trend of how easily people slide in-and-out of their commitments.  “Commitment” has become a “reversible” term in almost all spheres of life.  People are constantly looking for something better.  But better often means something new or more exciting – which is more satisfying to the carnal nature than ruling self.

Churches that press people towards maturity will see a steady stream of shallow folk headed out the back door.  This doesn’t mean such churches are destined to be small (or that small churches are more spiritual than larger ones), it simply means it will be smaller than it could otherwise be.  Although I pastor a church that is relatively large for our area, I have witnessed this disturbing trend from our own pews.  A lot of people have left us over our fourteen year history for mostly fickle reasons:  we challenged them to standards of commitment, they didn’t get their way about something, they got mad about minutia, an expectation wasn’t met, or the newness of it all had worn off.  Yes, I could have a larger church by simply accommodating these people, but I won’t cater to the demands of self-centered church hoppers.  I expect them to grow up.  And if they’re not willing to grow up, I would rather they leave us than for our church to become shallow in an effort to keep them.  I want depth more than breadth.

Although plenty of people have left us over the last fourteen years, those who remain are some of the most solid people I have ever seen.  They’re growing as disciples, follow through on their commitments, and have remained steadfast through thick and thin.  They will drape a towel over their arm, find a place to serve, give money, pray, read their Bibles, get under the heavy end of the log, cooperate with others, and do it all with joy in their heart.  It is a pure delight to be their pastor.

Here are five observations and practices of mine:

1.  I am slow to add church transferees to leadership.  It’s better to have a gap in a ministry team, or not even have a certain ministry, than it is to explain to this church family why the person I put into a highly visible position is no longer with us.  We can’t by wooed by a person’s talent or giftedness over their loyalty and long-term commitment.

2.  I try to get over their departure within 24 hours.  These church hoppers come and go like bunny rabbits.  It’s best for me that I don’t spend more than a day or so trying to figure it out.  I can’t figure it out. So I simply move on with my life and my ministry because they have moved on with theirs.

3.  I do no ask them to come back.  Ever.  They were not asked to leave; they made the decision on their own, so if they want to come back they can make that decision on their own too.  Besides, if they can walk away so easily, I never had them in the first place.  If people are so fickle that they are willing to break fellowship with me and this church family over minutiae, then we’re better off without them.

4.  I don’t buy into the “God-told-me-to-leave” baloney.  It’s fiction.  God is a God of commitment.  He doesn’t tell someone to get into a church and get involved, and then tell them to leave in the middle of their commitment.  Furthermore, God is never involved in a move that is dishonest or one that causes confusion and disunity within the body.

Recently I received a letter that read this way:  God told me to leave my church and attend PCC.  It’s been a good experience.  But since you don’t have Sunday School, God is now leading me back to my previous church. 

Rich. Isn’t it?  This is nothing more than pure wanderlust.

For the record, Sunday School is a good ministry.  I was a SS Teacher myself for 18 years.  But if a church doesn’t offer it or is unable, it shouldn’t be a deal breaker.  There are other options that meet the same need.  Furthermore, I’m glad the other 449 people who attend PCC don’t share this person’s opinion.

5.  It’s God’s church, not mine.  All I have to do is keep doing what I am supposed to do and God will build the church.  After all, it’s His church and they are His people.  He will add to the church those to be saved, PCC included.  My job is to fight the good fight, feed the sheep, expose the wolves, rebuke the swine, challenge the immature, and protect the flock.

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