People come and go in the church. In modern times, it seems people just don’t have as much time for church as they used to. Between all the responsibilities of life (work, home, family, etc.) and people trying to relax from their responsibilities (i.e. “Sunday is my only day off”), it’s now harder than ever to get people interested in church, and staying in church. So how does a pastor do that?
Ron Edmondson has a very good article on some of the reasons why people leave a church. But he doesn’t go further to explain how to keep those members from leaving. And that’s what we really want, isn’t it? To keep members coming back week after week? So I’m going to list his seven reasons why people leave, but then offer solutions to keep them in your church.
People get so involved in church activity that it becomes too much of a burden. In every situation, there is a risk/reward balance. When people see too much reward for too little risk, they tend to think of church as “boring” because it’s too easy. And while Jesus did say, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light”, He also said a true disciple will “take up his cross daily” and follow Him. But when they see too little reward and too much risk (as in the case of burnout), they see themselves doing a lot of work and not getting anything out of it, or too little. Often, what people refer to as “burnout” is simply the worker not seeing the value that he is giving to the organization, and not feeling appreciated.
And it’s not always about money. In fact, very seldom does money ever have to enter the picture. It’s little ways of showing appreciation, such as offering inclusion. If you have a bus mechanic in your church that does volunteer work on the weekends to keep your fleet rolling (even if your “fleet” only consists of one 15-passenger van), does that worker ever get invited out to eat? Do you ever think to include him in any church functions where his skills are not required? It’s great that he’s willing to volunteer his time, but if that person is only a human wrench, then he will soon feel underappreciated, and it won’t be long before he is gone.
People get hurt by other people in the church. It can be something as “simple” as hurt feelings (she didn’t speak to me this morning) to a business deal between members gone bad. There are as many different types of grievances that can happen between members as there are members in the church. Some, having experienced hurt, grow callouses on their heart and refuse to offer help when it’s needed, and their refusal to offer help can cause injury to others, and the cycle continues.
The church ought to be a place where we break these cycles, or at the very least learn to move past the hurt. Jesus said, “If thy brother smite thee on the one cheek, turn to him the other also.” He also told Peter to forgive “not seven times, but seventy times seven”! The church ought to be a place where forgiveness is taught and practiced on a regular basis. Learning forgiveness is difficult, but necessary if we are to keep people engaged with helping others in the church, the community, and beyond. By teaching your people to look for opportunities to serve, reminding them that Jesus was a servant and submitted Himself to death on the cross for us who don’t deserve it, you can help them to “endure hardness as a good soldier” and put up with more abuse than the average person because they can see the value in it (again with the risk/reward).
Paul said to Timothy, “Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world.” Demas would have made a great American believer because there is more stuff in America to distract the average believer than nearly anywhere else in the world! We live in an entertainment society. From music to fiction books to movies and television, we live to be entertained. And because many people now only have Sundays off, guess when they plan their entertainment trips? You guessed it – Sunday.
Young disciples need to be taught to “love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.” By keeping our minds focused on Christ, we can overcome the world and reap the benefits of a closer relationship with Him (risk/reward again. Are we sensing a pattern here?) By reminding them that the things the world has to offer are only fleeting while the things that God has to offer are permanent, life-changing, and real, we can build members who will decide to choose obedience to Christ over the entertainment of the world.
Sometimes people move. There are lots of different reasons, but it is important to let them know that they can find a good church body in their new community if they so desire. It is a good idea for a pastor to have resources available to members to help them connect with a local church quickly in their new community. Perhaps offering a letter of recommendation to the new church (if your member is of the type that you would recommend them to a new church body) would go a long way in helping your member connect with a church in the new community. If a person can get a letter of recommendation from a former employer, why shouldn’t they be able to get one from their pastor? Part of being a good pastor is helping your members transition to a new location when necessary.
People mess up. We sin. And sometimes that sin is messy, public, and extremely embarrassing. The church ought to be the one place where a person can go and find forgiveness, love, and compassion. But all too often we want to punish the person for their mistakes. Or sometimes the person just has the “feeling” that everyone is looking at them, or that everyone is talking about them. Unfortunately, there’s not much a pastor can do about a person’s feelings. All you can do is let your congregation know that this person is appreciated, loved, and forgiven. A simple but pointed message from the pulpit dissuading gossip may go a long way toward keeping the wounded member spiritually alive and in church where they can eventually move past the hurt and shame. Maybe the Sunday they return to church would be a good Sunday to preach that message about the woman caught in the very act of adultery.
Sometimes people get to a point where they feel that they have arrived, and church ministry is, unfortunately, one of those areas. When people start serving, many times it is the case that they feel they no longer need to grow spiritually. They have seemingly arrived at some unseen pinnacle of life, and that’s that. In short, they get a head full of pride.
It was pride that led Lucifer to say, “I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God, … I will be like the most high.” And in the church, there are those who unfortunately see their position of leadership as a springboard or a platform from which to challenge your authority as the pastor. A careful look at the men who withstood Moses will show that these were no ordinary members, but leaders in the congregation. They had positions of authority. People looked up to them. People went to them for advice and counsel. And so they got a big head and thought they should run the show!
As a pastor, it is important to be ever watchful of this in the lives of your co-laborers and to make sure they don’t fall victim to the same disease. Hopefully, you never have this problem, but if your church is of any size, or has been around any length of time, you are likely to experience this problem. When it does happen, it is best to expose the issue as Paul recommended: first privately, then with another leader in the church present, then if that still doesn’t work, publicly and openly. If it gets to that point, it will do three things: it will cement your absolute God-given authority as the pastor, it will expose the member who tried to usurp power unlawfully, and it will likely result in the leader’s departure along with any who followed him.
Do people leave the church as soon as the service lets out, or do they stick around and fellowship for a while? Do your members call each other, talk to each other, or interact with each other when not at church, or is church the only place where they connect? If the church is just a place to hang out for an hour or two on Sundays and an hour on Wednesdays, then you have a church that isn’t really connected. Paul talked about a church that is a body, and the body is extremely connected!
If I lost a finger, my whole body would hurt. When members fail to show up for church, do they get several calls from other members of the church letting them know they were missed? If my finger gets cut off, my whole body cries out in pain, but the church loses someone who is just as important and the body doesn’t say a word. And that’s not the way it should be. Members should be encouraged to engage with each other socially. To that end, it is not wrong to suggest social functions with which members could participate and interact, as long as those social functions are Christ-centered. That is, no social function should ever contradict or conflict with the main purpose of the church, which is making disciples.
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