There is perhaps no more discouraging aspect of the ministry as when people leave one's church. Both teaching and ruling elders can feel as if they have personally failed such people; after all if we had done everything right, wouldn't they have stayed? The modern church is so obsessed with church growth that any time a family leaves, the elders can become despondent, depressed, and perhaps even accusatory with each other. Allow me here in this brief essay to suggest something radical; sometimes people leaving your church may be a GOOD thing. Now granted, if people leave because the sermons are insipid, the elders unconcerned for the welfare of the flock, the church is torn apart with conflict, etc., then surely we should all see this as a wake-up call from God. But sometimes, we will have done everything God requires us to do, in the way that He requires it, and still, people leave. Sometimes they are long term friends of the church, sometimes long term friends of ours. But for both the peace and purity of the church elders need to have a better understanding of certain Biblical and sociological dynamics. After all, our goal is not to have a LARGE church, but rather a faithful one to Christ Jesus.
People join a church for a number of different reasons, some good, and some not so good. People also leave a church for a number of different reasons; some good, some not so good. To effectively grow a church (spiritually and numerically), we need to understand those reasons and as far as it does not compromise Biblical principles, use them to help people become what God wants them to be. But at the same time, we have to recognize that some people, no matter what we do, are not going to get with the program. Trying to please them, and keep them within our church is only going to cause more and more problems down the line.
The Bible makes a distinction between "sheep" and "goats." Sheep will receive the word of God, submit themselves to His authority and follow their shepherds. Goats will rebel against God, and His shepherds, trying to mislead as many sheep with them as they can. As the Word of God is preached, and as we hold people accountable to obey Him, the difference will become clearer and clearer.
Elders must love their sheep, and care for them and never "lord it over them (1 Ptr 5:1ff). But the real character of a man is determined by whether he does what God tells him to do, despite his feelings. The teaching elder's job is to tell the sheep the general principles of God's commands and then show them how it applies to their specific life situations. The ruling elders are to help them apply those same things on a day-by-day basis. Furthermore, all elders are to protect the sheep from the goats. Thus, if a person will not receive the Word, will not live in submission to Christ, then we need to recognize him for what he is.
Granted, the Christian church is broad enough to contain some legitimate differences in vision. We ought not condemn a brother who wants certain things from a church that we do not provide. God bless him, maybe he can serve God better somewhere else, as well as have his own needs met by another pastor. However, such people will usually sit down with you and tell you why they are leaving. Often it will become clear that you simply are not "scratching where they itch." They can go in peace, and with your sincere love; and no recriminations on anyone's part.
And you need to let them go. Who are we to say that such brothers MUST be a part of OUR church? Not for a moment should we be so arrogant as to believe that WE are the ONLY church. Maybe they do not share your vision, perhaps they want programs for their kids you cannot provide, or just feel more "comfortable" with a different style of worship. The fact is, no matter what you do; you cannot please everyone, and the surest road to disaster is trying to make everyone happy because then NO one is happy.
Instead, we need to sharpen our vision so that it attracts those who already share it, or are willing to develop it. A basic principle of successful leadership is having a definite goal or vision, and allowing God to bring along side you the people, He wants to share that vision. If that means, over time, that some people leave because they do not share that vision, then so be it.
Research on various successful churches demonstrates that the ones that grew dramatically into effective ministries ALWAYS had the ability to articulate and maintain their vision. Their vision gave the church a sense of identity and a sense of purpose that other people wanted to emulate. Eventually, through difficult times, God blessed that commitment and brought the people He wanted to share that vision. But that also meant, almost universally, that along the way, many people came, and then departed. In fact, the first five years were often the most traumatic as things settled out. If the pastor and the elders held together, supported each other and kept the vision firmly in focus, then eventually, the church grew and prospered, even though some dear friends might have left along the way. We need to give people the dignity of dealing themselves in, or out of the vision that God has placed on our hearts.
For example, I as a pastor am committed to developing a self-consciously Old School Presbyterian Church, Reformed in doctrine and practice and yet with the ability to minister in practical ways to people's real needs. I want to build a real covenant community where the people are deeply involved in each others' lives, and where we are all committed to helping each other grow in grace, godliness and wisdom. Yet, no matter how nice I am, no matter how gentle a shepherd, no matter how graciously I share that vision, some people are going to object to my insistence on Reformed doctrine. Even if they have been in a "Reformed" church for years, they may not have a clue as to what it means to be "Reformed." When they find out, some will inevitably become upset and pull away. Other people are going to become upset with insisting that we live a practical Christian life of obedience. They will refuse to follow God's principles of conflict and confrontation, they will not do family worship, they will not take dominion over their households, etc. The more my Session puts pressure on such people to obey God, the angrier they become, and the greater the likelihood that some will jump ship.
One of the sociological dynamics that effects church growth is called "comfort level." This means that people do not like situations or places that they find personally threatening. The higher the "threat" level, the less likely that people will join or stay within, a church.
This dynamic has many applications, some prosaic, some profound. On the more prosaic level, churches that reach about 75% of their seating capacity tend to generate a higher "threat" level. As a result, if a visitor comes in and it is difficult to find a seat, it is unlikely that they will return. The rule of thumb then for growing a church is to expand the seating capacity whenever attendance hits this level (and to be prepared to do this BEFORE it gets this high). The same dynamic even affects the number of parking spaces! In the same way, visitors feel "threatened" if people do not talk to them, or make them feel welcome (or even if people are TOO friendly!).
The "threat" level also affects long time members of a church. When there is a transition in leadership, the threat level goes up, because people are unsure of what is going to happen and how it will affect them. If the new pastor makes lots of changes right off the bat he is likely to raise the threat level because generally speaking, most people do not like change of any kind, even those that would improve things. Therefore, if a pastor makes too many changes too soon, the threat level rises, and people become uncomfortable. If they become too uncomfortable, some will start to leave.
Long-term members also can feel threatened if they perceive a lack of power from the leadership. If they do not see the leadership taking decisive actions, they can feel like a frightened passenger on a turbulent airplane. Some will panic and try to get out of the airplane, while others will attempt to take control themselves. This raises the threat level for everyone, and the least committed will start to look for other options.
Finally, the threat level goes up when people find that THEIR sins are being confronted. While every Christian I have ever met said they wanted strong preaching from the pulpit, they only wanted it for other people's sins. Start actually requiring people to obey God and many will become threatened and some will leave. Thus, many seeker friendly churches deliberately emasculate the Word of God reducing it to warm, amusing anecdotes that are pleasing to listen to, but do not raise threat levels. This is also, why successful mega-churches put so much emphasis on professional music and liturgical drama; entertainment is seldom threatening. And the less threatening the service, the more likely that people will stay.
Now, realizing the sociological dynamics above, we are caught in a bit of a quandary; Biblical Christianity is inherently threatening. God makes no allowances for human pride, but demands that every knee bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. True, spiritual worship is always God-centered, not man centered and His precepts, principles and commands brook no allowance for people's feelings. While broad evangelical churches can be rightly criticized for compromising on these issues, have Reformed churches over the past hundred years done much better? In OUR churches, we reduce the threat level by preaching in academic generalities that appeals to a certain intellectual elite within American culture. Thus we mostly appeal to upper-middle class, well-educated individuals who find security in academic and theoretical discussions.
Most Christians have assumed, from their experience that a church just ought to do certain things; one of which is make them feel comfortable and non-threatened. How could they know any better? This is what most churches have done now for generations. Many such Christians find a great deal of personal significance in serving on committees, participating in a music ministry, teaching Sunday school, etc. But again, the unstated but always assumed presupposition is that the Church exists to make me feel good about myself.
Now, for those whose hearts have been seriously touched by God, such a church is insipid at best, and an abomination at worst. They want more than just a safe comfort zone, they hunger and thirst for righteousness and desperately desire to know God deeply, to have their sins dealt with, and to live holy, godly lives unto His glory. Other Christians, deep down inside, really want this kind of vital relationship with the living God, but have never been given the teaching, the encouragement or the opportunity to develop it.
But there are those in the church, attractive, well-mannered, "nice" people who really, want nothing more than a place where their comfort level is maintained. They want a "nice" church, with "nice" people doing "nice" things. The very idea of anyone, ever, under any circumstances being disciplined by the church for any reason is anathema! They certainly do not want preaching that convicts THEIR hearts, and they certainly do not want to change anything in their lives just because it is contrary to God's commands. Basically, they do not want to obey God, and they do not want their elders to require anyone else to either!
And such people will become a boil on the body of Christ. When the church starts to grow spiritually, (as well as numerically) they will become upset and embittered. As the numbers increase, their sense of importance decreases. They are thin-skinned and will take offense easily. They refuse to handle problems and conflicts Biblically and constantly gossip, slander and nit-pick. You cannot resolve problems with such people because the real issue is almost never with their actual complaint, but in fact because their personal comfort zone has been invaded. They now feel threatened, and therefore they look for justifications why it is OUR problem, and not theirs. Therefore, no matter how hard you try, no matter what compromises you make, these people are always going to be unhappy just as long as the Church tries to follow Christ.
If you encourage such people to stay in your church, and bend over backward to accommodate them, they may well stay; but the cost is the church growing in obedience to Christ. Their real problem is that they are in rebellion to God, thus every time you try the push to church towards obedience to Christ, you will get them finding fault, getting offended and causing trouble. Thus, a little "operant" conditioning takes place; because of the negative reinforcement of these peoples' criticism, the Session deliberately backs off those things that make people feel "threatened," and hence the church loses its salt and light in the world. If you persist in preaching and practicing the truth, these "goats" will disrupt the church with slander, whispering, backbiting, tale-bearing, etc. Eventually, you risk losing the sheep as they search out some other fellowship where the goats do not hold so much sway.
The solution to the above problem is simple and based on long-standing practices of growing churches; let the people go before they cause a major rift. If possible, let them go gracefully and kindly BEFORE they raise the "threat" level for others. But let them go, you must. One of the "secrets" to church growth is to open the front door wide, and the back door even wider. There is no pleasing such people, and you doom yourself, and your ministry to constant warfare if you try. Ultimately, one of three things happens; either they leave, or the elders compromise and they stay (but the church stops growing), or the pastor is fed up and leaves himself.
Now, as mentioned before, not every person who leaves a church does so because they are "goats." Some people leave because they have a different vision, or even have different needs. They pass through your fellowship, staying with you for a while but eventually move on to a different flock. Who is to say that they must remain in your church forever? Perhaps God wants to teach them certain things they can learn only from your ministry, but that there are other things to be learned from someone else's.
Others would stay, but the threat level is too high. There are problems that need resolving, there are wounds that need to be healed. These people have a divine call on your time and the Session ought to devote itself to helping these people grow in grace and godliness. But what is the most usual course of action? We end up spending all our limited time trying to placate the "goats" and the hurting sheep are neglected. And the ones most vulnerable can be hurt and lost.
Now I am not for a moment suggesting we pin the "goat" label on anyone who disagrees with us, or who offers criticism of our ministry. Iron sharpens iron and it would be a pretty pathetic session that would not listen to the cries of their people and respond appropriately. Only God knows the goats, and the best of us can be deceived (my best friend for years turned out recently to be a goat).
But I am suggesting that before God, we as elders have certain duties. Our job is to fulfill our commission before God and leave the results up to Him. That means making sure that everyone is on board the same vision, that problems amongst the Session are resolved, Biblically and that we teach, and admonish our flock to do the same. We have got to get it deep into our minds, that no matter what we do; some people are always going to be angry, dissatisfied, frustrated, disappointed or will disapprove of us. Therefore, we seek to please God, not men. And as we do so, the "goats" will leave, and you are better off without them.
However, there are those whom the Scriptures define as the "faint-hearted" and the "weak" (1 Thess 5:14). They need our love and care. They need regular personal contact. They need to feel that they are important to us, and that we really do care for them. Thus, make a commitment to call through your church directory every month, giving your members a personal opportunity to interact with you, and share their frustrations, cares and concerns. This raises their comfort level, and reduces their threat level because it gives them a feeling of control by providing direct input to the leadership. Systematically invite people over to your home and get to know your sheep. Visit them regularly in their homes. The more personal contact people have with you, the more you reduce their threat level, as well as help them internalize what you are trying to teach. Don't be afraid to confront sin, but do it graciously, kindly and lovingly.
If your sheep know that you love them, they will feel less threatened, and will be able to endure even the most difficult of times. If they know that you are committed to their well being, and their spiritual growth, they will be strengthened and encouraged and will not wander away.
Legitimate concerns, questions or even criticisms are always welcomed; people have a right to know that their concerns are YOUR concerns. But those who are in rebellion, who just want to find fault, who will not submit, need to be welcomed to that back door. This can be quite difficult when such people are friends we have known for years. But for the peace and purity of the Church, and for our continued growth, hard choices must sometimes be made.
Therefore my brothers, I encourage you to "stand fast." Yes, we have all made mistakes in the past, and will do so in the future. But at the same time, set a worthy goal for your church; to create a genuine covenant community where the people love God and one another. Never lose one sheep because of inattentiveness or lack of care and mercy. But do not lose one moment of sleep if you have done what God has called you to do, and certain people leave anyway.
"I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is the judge the living and the dead and by His appearing and His kingdom, preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke exhort with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires… But you be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry…" (2 Tim 4:1ff)
- Brian M. Abshire
Rev. Brian Abshire, Ph.D. is currently a Teaching Elder associated with Hanover Presbytery. Along with his pastoral duties, he is also the director for the International Institute for Christian Culture, has served as an adjunct instructor in Religious Studies at Park University and is a visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at Whitefield College.