Revolving Church Doors
Most pastors of small to medium
sized congregations are directly involved in the follow-up of people who
have visited their congregations. For
almost twenty years, every Tuesday evening I would head out with one of
our elders to call on folks who had visited our church.
We would get all kinds of reactions, depending on the ecclesiastical
background of those visitors, and most people we met were hungry for a
closer walk with God; they were looking for a church where Jesus was
glorified, where the preacher actually preached from the Bible, and where
people were accepted for who they were. But one type of visitor really
stands out in my mind, one whom we met only occasionally: those who railed
against the churches they were leaving. For years I would sit
enthralled, drinking down every word, believing every report about how bad
that church was, how the preaching had been so shallow and how the
preacher, or somebody whom they perceived pulled his strings, personified
the manipulative control freak.
I was always excited to “sign them
up,” and couldn’t wait to have them meet with the elders—oftentimes
to join by reaffirmation of faith, since we knew from experience that
their denomination wouldn’t issue a letter to a Presbyterian church.
I was pumped and primed, believing that all that these terrific
people had needed was a “great preacher” like me and “faithful, kind
and godly elders” like our session.
I was confident that it wouldn’t be long before they would be
volunteering to take on every job that we hadn’t been able to fill for
the past six months. But then
several years would go by, and they would be gone, and sometimes I would
get word back that they were saying the same kinds of things about me.
I thought about some verses from Proverbs:
“The words of a whisperer are like
dainty morsels, and they go down into the innermost parts of the body.”
“The first to present his case
seems right, till another comes forward and questions him.” (Proverbs
I had never bothered to meet with
these folks’ former pastors; we had simply notified them by letter that
this family wanted to join—afterall, these pastors were Baptists,
Methodists, Episcopalians, in the Assemblies of God or in Independent, one
congregation denominations. Most
of the time I simply assumed that these pastors were benighted or simply
poor shepherds. It’s not
that I would necessarily have said that, but I often thought it. My reaction was not unlike how I’ve responded in
interviewing prospective employees—with our parochial school, I’ve
interviewed hundreds of people for jobs over the years—and I’ve now
learned to be leery of people who speak evil of their former employers,
because the real problem may be with the person I’m interviewing.
In the case of some people who
change churches, they’re like the person who takes up a new hobby every
few years. Right now it’s
fishing—they subscribe to fishing magazines, plan trips out of town to
go to the huge, Bass Pro Shop two hours away, and bust the family budget
with the new, twenty-five thousand dollar boat, motor and trailer.
But before that rig is even paid for, it will be sitting up unused
in the garage, as the fellow figures out that the easiest way to pay for
his new golf cart is to sell the boat—“The two happiest days in a man’s
life are the day he buys a boat and the day he sells it.”
I am not saying that everybody who
switches churches or denominations is like that, because there are many
pathological situations. And people
sometimes do have good reasons to leave a church, even if they fall short
of the kind of shaking the dust off your feet that people need to do if
they discover they’re in a cult or something that is apostate. It’s
just hard to strike a balance between church-hopping and the idea that
once you’ve joined a church, you’re bound to it for life.
I’ve let people down on many
occasions, sometimes forgetting to telephone them or see them, because I
was in the middle of a big crisis with somebody else. On a recent Sunday
one of our deacons told me that I had stood him up for lunch the week
before. I had totally forgotten about it, because he asked me right after
I’d finished preaching, and I didn’t have my Palm to write it down.
Most people have learned that if they want me to remember something,
especially just before or right after I preach, they need either to tell
my wife or e-mail me.
So I will be bold to say that few
people ever leave a church because of basic points of theology, unless we’re
talking about true conversion out of a cult; they leave because of other
things. Furthermore, after
counseling with literally many hundreds of people, I have concluded that
human beings are pretty much incapable of truly objective thought about
the things that really matter—people believe what they want to believe—indeed,
those who view themselves as being the least influenced by their emotions,
are often those most emotionally driven.
When I think about the intellect, will and emotions, I think that
it’s safe to say that the human will determines the perception of the
intellect, and the will is always profoundly affected out of past painful
and pleasurable experiences.
I’ve learned that the best way to
keep people in the congregation that I pastor is to try to get them
socially involved with other people there.
Of course, I better go see them when they’re in the hospital,
promptly return their phone calls and come when they invite me to their
homes and parties. But it’s the social connection that’s vital.
What about preaching?
Sure, that’s important, too, and I still put in somewhere between
sixty and a hundred hours a month in study and can pretty well hold people’s
attention for three, fifty minute messages a week: right now, Hebrews on Sunday mornings, topical examination of
basic Bible doctrines on Sunday nights, and Ruth on Wednesday nights.
But when people are hurting, if all they’re getting is the
preaching, and they “feel disconnected,” they’re probably going to
start looking somewhere else—I think that has likely always been the
case, even if Charles Haddon Spurgeon was in the pulpit.
Serving in leadership doesn’t help
much and can often be a window weight rather than a life preserver,
because leaders, especially those on a salary, get to see the inner
workings of a church, and it is not always a pretty sight.
Sometimes what goes on in the inner sancta of power in
congregations is reminiscent of the Apocryphal statement attributed to
nineteenth century German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, “If you want to
enjoy sausage or respect the law, you should never watch either of them
being made.” It’s a
cliché, but it’s nevertheless often all too true: there are no perfect churches, and everybody will show his
sinfulness, sooner or later. So
if you get close enough even to the godliest people on earth, you will
eventually be shocked by what you observe—only the Lord Jesus will never
I’ve also come to realize that
people have different needs at different points in their lives, and God
uses different pastors and congregations to meet those needs. That is to
say that even though I earnestly try to be the best preacher I possibly
can be, I realize that there are people who need to be somewhere else for
certain seasons of their lives—I’m not Sir Thomas More, the Man for
The bottom line for me: while I believe that the theology and polity of the Presbyterian church is that which is closest to the Bible, I could probably be a member of almost any Evangelical congregation, if push came to shove in the providence of God. And I would hope that I would support that church to the best of my ability, but I would beg God to keep me from a reactionary condemnation of the group that I had left, while I tried to remember that whenever the honeymoon was over, as it always will be, I’d discover they were full of jerks, too, just like the people I’d left behind—indeed, sadly, sometimes just like me.