Letter from America: Church-swapping

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‘If I had never joined a church till I had found one that was perfect, I should never have joined one at all. And the moment I did join it, if I had found one, I should have spoiled it, for it would not have been a perfect church after I had become a member of it. Still, imperfect as it is, it is the dearest place on earth to us’ (C. H. Spurgeon).

It goes without saying that today’s culture is marked by an unhealthy consumerism that permeates all levels of society, including the church. The American church is infamous for treating the body of Christ in this manner, as though looking for the ‘perfect match’ on Match.com

Church is now synonymous to a social club that you can leave at will with little apparent stress. While this cultural attitude is at the heart of most church-swapping, there are other reasons why people leave churches, often in droves. For the short 26 years of my life, I’ve observed hundreds of members switching churches and seen the damage caused.

So many people do not realise that a church is more than a meeting place: it is the body of Christ. Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4 demonstrate that ‘we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another’ (Romans 12:5). That is why, when people leave, it’s like a divorce. It hurts!

Choice

Today’s American society is marked by consumerism, individualism and narcissism. We like lots of different choices and being able to control our options, even when it comes to the food we buy.

Here, in the southern United States, it is not an exaggeration to say there is a church on every street corner. There are at least 20 churches within five miles of my house. In a typical American’s eye, it is not hard therefore to leave one church for another, picking any church, depending on preference, within a 20-minute drive of home.

One author, writing for The Gospel Coalition (TGC), compared it to eating at Chipotle, a popular, good food TexMex restaurant: ‘We live in a Chipotle world. Especially in America, the air we breathe is consumerism; the guiding principle is the consumer knows best.

‘We celebrate our right to design a burrito exactly as we prefer it, thank you very much … The pleasure of personalisation is of a higher value than the inevitable indigestion caused by our ill-conceived culinary combinations’ (Brett McCracken, Chipotle church and the problem of choice).

Our delight in personalising everything reaches into the way we treat church. If someone cannot deliver what we want, or something is said or done that offends us, we simply go to another church that fits our predilections. And there are plenty to choose from. Our consumerism dictates our ecclesiology.

Many of the churches that cater for my generation are filled with well-meaning Christians who are not church members. Some churches try to encourage membership, but I think most of my peers don’t want to be committed. That way, leaving is all the easier.

Perception

Another TGC author stated it this way: ‘To hear many Christians talk — and this would probably be the opinion of many more, if you could read their thoughts — the idea of being a vital, connected member of a church seems strange, unnecessary, maybe even a little antiquated.

‘After all, if the goal is to grow as a Christian — to learn more about God, to understand and act out our faith more consistently — why should we think the church is so important? The best Bible teachers on the planet podcast their preaching; there are energetic parachurch organisations where a Christian can serve well; and a small group meeting in a home provides excellent opportunity for fellowship.

‘Really, when you get right down to it, what good is a hidebound, outdated thing like the church? And why should I be a part of one?’ (Greg Gilbert, The church is an embassy, not a social club).

These values have shaped American ecclesiology, but they are not the only reasons people leave churches. The church is made up of sinful human beings, as C. H. Spurgeon points out (above). Because the vestiges of sin still remain in us, we are bound to sin against one another and that certainly causes bruises.

I know that in my short years of being involved in churches, there have been situations where I have been bruised by other members. My father, who is a pastor, has been bruised by people’s actions or words. As sinful creatures, we do not take offences lightly, and people can leave churches because of being hurt.

Priorities

I would also venture to say that some people become battered because of the Pareto principle: ‘20 per cent of the people do 80 per cent of the work’. That too can cause people to seek greener pastures.

But we all need to remember Paul’s words: ‘Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony’ (Colossians 3:12-14).

Child care issues candrive consumerism in Christian families. People leave churches (whether they are a member or not) because there were not, in their eyes, proper ‘children’s programmes’. I fear many Americans value youth in an ungodly way.

I know of churches that spend millions developing facilities for children and youth, complete with a sound stage, video games, climbing walls, and all the ‘bells and whistles’. Parents flock to such churches, just so they can put their child in ‘church day care’ while they have a worship experience.

Children are indeed to be valued, even as Jesus valued them. However, it is the parents’ duty to raise their children under the preaching of the Word and have them learn to worship as soon as possible.

Personalities

People can attach themselves to a particular pastor, perhaps for good reason, but will leave a church when that pastor leaves, or if there is a change in leadership. I have witnessed numerous occasions where people leave a church in droves once a beloved pastor leaves, including for good reasons, such as retiring or accepting a new call.

I have also witnessed first-hand the effects of people not liking the pastor’s style of preaching, and the resultant mass exodus. The results were devastating to that small church and pastor.

This is not a new phenomenon. Paul was dealing with this when he wrote to the Corinthian church, ‘For when one says, I follow Paul, and another, I follow Apollos, are you not being merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.

‘I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labour. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building’ (1 Corinthians 3:4-9).

Many people treat pastors, especially those accessible by the internet and podcasts, as their Apollos or Paul.

Love

While I have listed negative reasons, there can also be valid reasons for leaving a church. For example, there is a change in employment. I have seen good friends, including elders and deacons, leave for this reason. In those situations, I think you can only trust the Lord and follow his guiding hand. After all, God does establish our steps (Proverbs 16:9).

Then there are situations where people leave because of serious doctrinal error. This occurs quite often in mainline churches, where people will leave for another church that is more in line with Scripture.

In conclusion,unless there are serious issues like tolerated heresy, I encourage you to stay in your church, become a church member if you are not one already, and love the body of Christ in the same way that Christ does.

Sure, we’re a bunch of misfits, sinners redeemed by Jesus’ blood, but we are brothers and sisters who are being built up together! The New Testament teaches us to love Christ and one another.

In today’s culture, it speaks volumes to be committed to something. Marriage lived out faithfully is the epitome of commitment, and marriage is a picture of Christ and his church. Why shouldn’t we share the same love, appreciation and commitment as Christ does for his church?

This article was first published on Evangelical Times on June 2016 and shared with their permission. All rights reserved. Subscribe to ET’s newsletter here.

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