People land and stay at various churches for a myriad of reasons. Again, some these reasons are very good and others are very bad. No one can truly judge the motivation of the heart but Judge Jesus, so we’ll leave determining the genuine validity of reasons for coming or going with him. I am suggesting that you can stay at a church for the wrong reasons. This blog is not about convincing people to leave their churches, rather, for them to consider why they are there–or why they should be there. My hope is that, if they are at a healthy church, they will in fact begin to love the church all the more and do more than stay, but in fact commit for the right reasons.
All of the wrong reasons to stay at a church can be summarized in two words: personal preferences (PP). Ironically, this is also the root cause of wanting to leave….I digress. There is nothing inherently wrong with PP we all have them. And I will agree that it is important, at some level, to be at a church that you want to marry. I don’t necessarily expect everyone to marry the “fat church” because she has a “good personality.” At the same time, I don’t know if that is our greatest problem these days.
Unfortunately, we’re not perfectly sinless like Jesus, so our PP are marred with sin and therefore not always trustworthy–at least not for building or evaluating churches, leaders, or people for that matter. That is why Jesus gave us the Bible (though it seems PP still wreak havoc through personal interpretations). And though I am sure pastors are grateful for every sheep that God brings into their flock, I am convinced that just as there are poor reasons to leave a church, there are also poor reasons to stay. Some of these include: “I like the music…I like the sermons…I like the pastor…I like the children’s program…I like the building…I like the size of the church”...OR the ever-popular, “I like that this church/pastor isn’t like my last one.”
The one common thread on all of those reasons is that they are all rooted in a subjective “I like”, also known as personal preferences. Implied through all of these statements are reasons why they wouldn’t or couldn’t go to other churches (the whisper of the critic-monster in all of us that we either feed or starve)…”The music isn’t as good…the preaching isn’t as solid…etc.” Without doubt, and with a bit more information, some of these could very well be valid reasons to leave or stay at a church. Many of these reasons to stay, however, have everything to do to with superficial issues and nothing with what the Bible describes as the essential character of what makes a healthy church. While music, preaching, and programs are important, if these are the only reasons to stay, then the church is only a song, sermon, or class away from failing to meet your personal preference expectations–and then you’re only a short step away from looking for a new family that is more to your liking. I desperately want people to connect with the bride of Christ, to go to church. I believe participation in the body of Christ is essential to the Christian life as I personally believe that God intended sanctification itself to take place largely in community.
That being said, staying at churches solely because we or our families are entertained, fed, or served is misguided at best. There may be good reasons, but these are not them. Led by such PP, one will either find themselves dangerously plugged into an unhealthy “christian” church OR living as an unhealthy “christian” at a healthy one. There are better, more biblical reasons to stay. Here are a few:
1. The church preaches the Bible: This might go without saying, but I’ll say it. I could have just as easily said that churches must preach the Bible–all of it. That means they don’t avoid the hard words, difficult passages, or counter-cultural truths. A healthy church, a church you should stay at, has the Bible as THE AUTHORITY for all things. Of course, there are those who will abuse authority and use the Bible wrongly to promote bad doctrine and false teaching. If they preach the Bible, then they will also teach you to test what they preach by the Bible.
2. The church centers everything on the Gospel: This is beyond preaching the “story of Jesus” on Easter once a year. It is the core belief that the gospel is not just the ABC’s of faith, but the A thru Z of faith–its beginning, its middle, and its end. The good news of Jesus not only saves us, but it informs how we live. The church should employ to the gospel to know how we are to “do” our doctrine, marriages, finances, leadership, parenting, community, and all relationships. If the Bible is ONE story, and the hero is Jesus, then everything we do should center on Jesus as both the means and the end.
3. The church has qualified leaders & leadership development. For all the mistakes I have made as a church planter, I have made the most with leadership. There can be no compromising here, not laying of hands hastily, the consequences are too great. I have lost good friends over the issues of eldership. Though the standards of leadership must be set high, we must be careful not to put too much red tape in front of them–to make it near impossible to lead or even serve. There has to be leadership development. The church must have a place for young leaders to serve, grow, be trained, and then released. Failure to do this results in an unhealthy polarizing a church around one leader, or group of leaders.
4. The church practices baptism and communion. Since Jesus left the church with just two specific sacraments to practice, it’s best that we do. Regardless of mode or form, the question is, is the flock encouraged to be baptized as the initial step of obedience to Jesus and doorway into the church community or not? And, is the Lord’s Supper practiced as you gather regularly? Both of these are not “culturally relevant” activities, but they are biblically mandated. They are both memorials to remember the gospel AND signs to direct us in the future.
5. The church practices church discipline. The church has to be serious about sin. You will know that they are when they talk about sin, command people to repent of sin, and speak of sin as an internal heart problem (not just an external hand problem). Church discipline protects the purity of the gospel and the purity of God’s bride. Church discipline is uncomfortable, inconvenient, and counter-cultural. But, done rightly, church discipline is in fact a means of grace, that comes through the church, to encourage those who are caught in sin to repent.
6. The church is on mission. The word “missional” has been so overused that it has lost much of its meaning . It’s more than being contextual, more than being cultural engaging, more than being a presence in the community. A church on mission recognizes that they are alive, active, and SENT. With intention, one you can see, they strive to fulfill what Jesus prayed for in John 17 and what he commanded through the Great Commission. Being missional meanings perpetuating the idea of being a missionary both individually and corporately. Individually, we live on mission where we work and play, and we continue the mission together through planting more churches.
7. The church is a family of families: Finally, is the church a family–a gospel community. A church that is a family means that they treat one another like brothers and sisters, that they live out what Paul commands in Titus 2. But this isn’t possible if the family is not living this way outside of the church. In other words, the church should be encouraging parents, but especially fathers, to pastor their homes–their first churches. Then, they bring their gospel-centered family into community with other gospel-centered families and we begin to see the “manifold wisdom of God” proclaimed. On a side not, though I am sure it is possible, I find it difficult to understand how a church of 500+ can actually feel like a family. Even at our small size, it is a challenge to know everyone. I wonder, however, if many people stay at a church because they will not be known, because their service won’t be missed, because they can hide out at the “event” of church and not really be part of a family.
Who knows how this will be received. My hope is that you will begin to view the church differently. If you are a pastor or planter, I think it wise to ask yourself WHY people stay. As people come, it is very tempting to “adjust” the mission and philosophy toward the applause and away from the boos. Pastor Mark Dever (9 marks) says, “You win people to what you win them with.” It’s your job to make sure that you are winning people with Jesus and that they are staying for Him too.