I’ve heard it dozens of times, and last week we heard it again. “We have made a decision. We’re leaving this church and looking for a new church.” If you’re anywhere within 50 feet of a church in the West, you’ve heard it, too.
This particular family’s leaving came as a near total surprise to all of us. There’s no known conflict. No known hard feelings. No known weirdness. Just “We’ve made a decision we’ve been thinking about for a year now.”
I’m experiencing a bunch of emotions when I heard it this time. At first I was a little angry at the family. I went through the possible real reasons they might be leaving. I did not and still don’t believe in a situation where “everything is fine” this family has no underlying reasons for breaking fellowship with their church.
I felt terrible for the Sr. Pastor of the church. This is not the news he needs right now, and I’m growing weary of my friends and colleagues getting beat up by dysfunctional church dynamics.
I felt frustration… At what point do people think divorcing (and “divorce” is the right word here) themselves from the life of a church is entirely up to them? Don’t they realize they have been given to this community of faith just as much as it has been given to them?
And with a sigh and a prayer for mercy, I remembered the lesson I’ve learned so many times the last few years:
The answer is “no.” No, they don’t understand. They don’t understand their family is a gift to the faith community and by leaving they are depriving the community of a gift from the Lord. They do not understand why “divorce” is the right word for what they are doing. They don’t understand why church shopping is contrary to God’s will for their lives and the life of the church. They don’t understand a pastor’s pain in their leaving might have nothing at all to do with a lower statistical report.
The simple fact is this: This particular family is a product of the church growth movement that has decimated (and continues to decimate) our churches. They are living as they have been taught to live… by the church.
And my frustration at them melted away into a larger concern for the church.
As Tony Jones graphically represented in his blog last week, entire generations are leaving the church and not looking back. A lot of people who “feel led” to leave wind up hopping from place to place until they eventually hop on out of the church completely.
I am convinced one of the main reasons they’re leaving is because we’ve taught and embodied a bad ecclesiology for a long time. They’ve got a skewed, flawed, incorrect definition of what “church” is in the first place. And it’s not really their fault. It’s ours. It’s the pastors’ and church leaders’ fault. When we made numerical growth the #1 priority, we committed idolatry. Over time, that idolatry eventually changed our idea of what the church should be. And now we get to read posts in social media where a seemingly solid, committed family “breaks up” with their church like it’s a normal part of life.
Fixing this problem– particularly in the life of a local church that has swallowed the Church Growth movement hook, line, and sinker– is going to take a lot of time, patience, vision, and intentionality. It’s going to take serious theological/practical work. We’ve got a lot of change to experience to consistently embody a Church that Christ might actually recognize as His Bride. It’ll take a miracle. A bunch of miracles, in fact… because manipulating church systems to affect spiritual change is what got us into this mess in the first place. We mustn’t forget that.
So let’s get at it. Let’s quit reading about it, looking longingly at other ministries that are doing it, wishing we could do it, and start seeking something better.