LESSON #23: When People Leave
I never get used to people leaving our church. In this consumeristic, serve me, feed me, meet my needs society, it is not uncommon to see people come and go in a church. Connecting with a church for many is like dating without an intention to commit–just looking for a good time. They’re trying to find the perfect ideal mate that looks right, sounds right, and makes me feel good while requiring nothing of them they don’t “feel” like giving. That is why fewer and fewer people are actually getting married to the church.
So, every time a “new” person dares to enter our doors for the first time (usually after hearing how good a “date” we had with one of their friends), its difficult not to feel as if you’re being interviewed and evaluated like a first date. For a pastor, there can be a lot of pressure to impress or prove they are “worthy” of a second date. Know that, if you say one thing wrong, make one wrong move, or get something stuck in your teeth–you’ll never see them again, there are a lot of fish in the church sea. I’ve gotten rather used to people coming to see if we’re cool,”conservative”, or cultic–I expect it. What is difficult is when people choose to join the family, to live with you for you a while, and then, like some sort of temporary marriage, decide to walk away. Regardless of who or why, it’s hard not to feel like a rejected girlfriend left to wonder what (if anything) you did wrong. Was it something I said? Do I smell? Is it my big butt? Notorious for their number embellishing, when pastors are asked how big their church is they often say, “If everyone show up on one Sunday….” Knowing how fickle people are today, such claims are akin to bragging about how many people you’ve dated. Weird. I guess if everyone who has come and gone in our church actually stayed, we’d be huge. We’re not, and that is ok. But, unlike some of my pastoral compatriots, I’ve come to grips with the fact that those who have left, aren’t coming back any time soon so best not “count” them as part of the family just because they winked at your or held your hand for a while. I’d rather have one wife than 25 girlfriends.
Yet, I can still remember the very first couple who left our church like it was yesterday. We were probably 35 or 40 people, and they were good friends who had been with us since the beginning. Though this one hurt a bit more being the “first”, it can still remember nearly every couple that has left after spending some time with our church family. I see this couple and if often feels like seeing an old girlfriend that you once kissed–you both feel awkward. The truth is, I have a Rolodex of every face that has left, whether they spent a week, a month, or several years with us. Some of them I miss, some of them I don’t, but all of them left an imprint here whether it was to help build or destroy something–they either stayed and left some fingerprints OR farted in the room and left a stink when they walked away. For better or worse, I remember them.
I thought I would share some of the reasons people have given for leaving. Obviously, people have and give all kinds of reasons for leaving. It’s similar to reading about all the lines that people give for “break ups” which we all know never quite tell the full truth (It’s me…not you.) I do this simply to prepare any would be church planter as well as caution those thinking about dumping your current girlfriend to be careful what you say when you leave. These are certainly not ALL of the reasons, but a good smattering of a few…
1) “Your worship doesn’t make me cry.” Seriously, this has been offered as a reason. Other versions of the same thing that make the reason sound a bit more spiritual is: “Your music isn’t spirit- filled.” I’m not sure exactly how one determines the different between spirit-filled music and non-spirit filled music. There was a time when that meant no demonic drums or satanic guitars. Today, it apparently means tears and tingles. At the heart of this is a genuine desire for an experience that individualizes faith and puts one’s own emotions at the center of all authority.
2) “You drink beer and gamble.” I have heard this one a time or two, probably because when we first started the church we made a bit too much of a deal about our freedom in Jesus. The truth is, we like beer, we like cigars, and we like to play Texas-hold’em. In themselves, these things are not sinful though sin has perverted many such things in creation and caused much pain in people. What I found, however, was that those who left enjoyed those things also–they simply didn’t think a pastor should talk about them. Very quickly you realize that these people have spend a great deal of time and energy living two different lives, their “Christian” life and their “Real” life. For me, that is simply too hard. I’ll just be a Christian with an occasional pint lifted high in honor of the King.
3) “We don’t agree with your theology.” This will be offered quite often as an excuse. It is often a very valid one. What I find, however, is that those who offer theology as a reason to leave, often do so for personal not necessarily biblical reasons. It is not that they can, or even desire to, debate or explain their theological differences. I have found it is more that they don’t want to jettison whatever they have accepted as true based on how they were raised or what they were once taught. In other words, they don’t really want to do the hard work of wrestling with the Scriptures as much as rest in what they already know, feel, or sense.
4) “I,/We/Our Family doesn’t connect.” I am not sure exactly what this means. Like many reasons given, this is one that probably serves as justifiable mask for a more unjustifiable explanation. When someone tells me that their family doesn’t connect, my first thought is wondering how hard they have tried to connect or serve other families at all. Usually, because I know the peeps in our church, there are many people who have tried to “connect” with the said family and, for one reason or another, they have been rebuffed. It is my personal opinion that, for many, this reason is softer way of saying “I don’t like you.” When someone says, “Our family doesn’t connect” or something similar, I hear, “I don’t, won’t, can’t commit.”
5) “God is leading/calling us…” This is probably the most irritating of reasons for people to leave a church. For those who are leaving, this is the TRUMP card of all reasons. Once someone declares that that the Holy Spirit is leading them, how can anyone disagree. Sadly, God’s call or leading is often used as a spiritual-sounding cover to hide the true reasons. Of course, this isn’t always the case. There are those who are led to move and thus join other churches, those who are led to plant churches, even those who are led to stop traveling 50 miles to church and stay at one in their community. I have not doubt the spirit leads in this way. The problem I have with “leading” or “calling” is when it isn’t specifically TO a place, but very definitely AWAY from a place (minus weird cult type situations). Again, spiritual sounding reasons like these feel like dishonest cop-outs. Other examples of spiritual sounding excuses to leave (or not get involved) include phrases such as “seasons”, “time of rest”, or “healing”.
6) “Your church is too young OR too old.” I’ve heard this one from both the older generation and the younger generation. Sometimes this comment is rooted in consumerism, other times it is the genuine result of someone who feels out of place. For the most part, both the older and younger generation are simply looking for how they can be served by others like them as opposed to how they can serve others not like them. The older generation wants people in their same life stages instead of seeing the importance of pouring into the younger generations. The younger generation wants to find people to “hang with” and marry without seeing the importance of learning from the older generations’ experiences and marriages. Both miss the point of books like Titus where Paul describes the roles of all members of the family.
7) “Things have changed.” You can expect to hear this from some of the people who have been there for some time. There are a lot of things that can be meant by “change”, and you’ll be hard pressed to get them to identify something specific. They’ll spend inordinate amounts of time talking about how the church is no longer like a family, how it’s run like a business, how communication with leadership is different, and how “OTHERS” feel the same way. The truth is, when you grow, things do change. Sometimes this is a result of maturity and other times it is a result of simply size. Whatever the reason, you must decide if your church is going to be committed to constantly reforming or forever remaining.
Of course, there are others and not everyone leaves using such excuses. There are those who leave churches for very valid reasons. Please (the three of you who read this blog) do not take this list personally–my blog is simply cathartic. And remember, if you are going to leave a church, however, I’d ask you to consider how you leave. Some have left in a blaze of glory with all matter of disdain for who we are, some have written lengthy letters explaining their “concerns” in detail, some have sent impersonal and curt emails, some have given honest reasons, some have embellished (for our sake and for theirs), and still some slip out silently without saying anything. Instead of all of those glorious options, which all sound like really bad breakups, how about sitting down with the pastor and being honest. If not, there’s always facebook (but unfriend them before throwing them under the bus).
And if you are a pastor, the lesson to learn is that people will come and people will leave; that Jesus plants, builds, grows, shrinks, and kills churches; that people move in and out of churches for both good and bad reasons. Let God determine which is which. When new people come to your church, be slow to get excited,but quick to love them; and if they leave one day, be slow to get upset and quick to show grace. When all is said and done, Shepherd the flock that God has given you (for as long as they are there), ignore the goats, and shoot the wolves.