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.” (Proverbs 18:8.)

“The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him.” (Proverbs 18:17.)

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.

Our situation in life is very different from the situation in the days when the New Testament was being written, where there was some kind of connection between every church in the world and there was only one manifestation of the Universal Church in any given city. Today, no church on the face of the earth can claim to be THE one true Church, and even in the best of denominations, people can always find some foolishness if they look hard enough. That is even truer when it comes to local churches. While I am convinced before God that Grace Presbyterian is the best congregation in central Louisiana and that, in some sense, every Christian ought to be a member there—I hope every pastor believes that of his own congregation and preaching —I’d be a fool to think that we were the only true church around. Locally, we are part of the true Church, as is the Orthodox Presbyterian Church across the river, but then again, so are the Lutheran and Baptist churches and the Assemblies of God and on and on.

The Westminster Confession of Faith reflects this truth when it states:
“This catholic church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.
“The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a church on earth, to worship God according to his will.” (XXV, iv, v.)

Some church leaders walk in the footsteps of the quick to discipline Diotrephes; (3 John.) they bully people into submission, then they tell them that they cannot leave for another congregation without ecclesiastical permission, as if membership in a denomination was as binding as a marriage covenant. But sometimes, as I say, people simply need to go for their own spiritual health.  Maybe they have gotten themselves into a situation where they simply cannot “hear” what their preachers says from the pulpit; hopefully, it is a temporary situation.

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.

Sometimes it’s something I’ve said from the pulpit and usually involves some misunderstand. But if it doesn’t get handled quickly, the misunderstanding can harden into bitterness and an unwillingness to forgive. I’ve learned that the best thing that I can do when somebody is offended with something that I’ve said is: “I am really sorry for the pain that my comments caused you. Would you forgive me?” There is nothing false in an apology like that—I have no doubt that whatever I have said could have been said much better, and such remarks do cause people pain—if we have to wait until we are convinced that we have actually sinned against somebody in clear-cut, specific details before we ask for forgiveness, there is little opportunity for reconciliation this side of the Judgment Seat of Christ.

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 disappoint us.

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 all Seasons.

That realization causes me to use an easy in/easy out approach when it comes to church membership. As long as another local church holds to the essential tenets of the Christian faith, I give people my blessing if they want to go elsewhere, even if they are unable or unwilling to articulate the reason. Of course, I couldn’t give my blessing to a church that was fuzzy about the gospel, but if the preacher affirmed salvation by grace alone, received through faith alone, in Christ alone, I would not withhold my blessing unless I knew something, such as the pastor’s being immoral or an antinomian. Sometimes it’s a bit of a stretch, but I believe in cordiality at all costs, except for loss of the gospel.

Giving people my blessing means that sometimes they come back; it may be in a few months or even after a decade, but often they will come back. Furthermore, I will still do pastoral ministry for them after they’ve gone. Recently a man contacted me, and I met with him for two hours as he poured out his heart, but he’ll probably remain in the Evangelical church that they are part of because of his wife. That’s just not a big deal for me. Maybe his pastor is too busy, or maybe the man would be uncomfortable sitting in the pew if he knew that the pastor knew everything that he’s told me. I don’t know, and I don’t really care.

The greatest calling on those who lead the Church is summed up in the two greatest commandments, Matthew 22:36-40. The under-shepherds of Christ’s sheep must love the Triune God with the whole of their being, but they must love the Lord’s sheep, too, not only as they love themselves, but also with a willingness to lay down their own rights and needs, even as the Great Shepherd did. (John 10; Philippians 2.)

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.

Bob Vincent