Thursday, August 27, 2009

When People Leave the Church -by Pastor Joshua Ritchie

When A Member Leaves The Church- by Pastor Joshua Ritchie
There are few things that I find to be more painful than a church member leaving. I have tried to learn how to cope with this over the years of ministry but I still find that I don't handle this well. Depending on the reason for their leaving my response will vary.

If the person or family moves away, for this reason, it always seems to hurt a little bit less. Oftentimes the move is related to a job change. Nevertheless, the pain of knowing that someone you love/have discipled will not be around as much is still hard to bear with.

As a pastor, I've often agonized over people leaving the church for this reason because I want them to be plugged into a great church wherever they go. But some Christians will gladly take a promotion or change jobs and relocate without ever knowing if a solid church is in relatively close proximity to their new home. Then they spend the next 6 months to a year looking for a good church to be a part of, all the while their faith and spiritual growth are very limited. Knowing that this often happens makes their move painful in the heart of a pastor.

When I have friends move away and are no longer members of our church for this reason, then I take it upon myself to help them find a church in that area so that when they get to their new home, they'll have a place to be fed and served by God.

An unrepentant sinning believer is harder to deal with, in regards to their leaving the church. It is painful because they are giving evidence that their conversion may not be real. They are giving evidence of hypocrisy and we know that no hypocrite will have eternal life. That is what makes this situation tough to deal with. It's as if the sheep have strayed away from the flock only because they were never a sheep to begin with. Perhaps they were a goat or a wolf in sheep's clothing. We know from Matthew 18 that the good shepherd leaves the 99 sheep in order to go get the 1 that strayed. In Scripture we have the promise that the Lord will not let His sheep perish and die. He goes out to get them and brings them to repentance. The professing believer who leaves and never returns may very well be a false convert. That is a sorrowful and painful reality to deal with.

Not only that but the process of church discipline, which if it does not end in repentance on the part of the believer, may ultimately end in marking the believer as an unbeliever and removing them from fellowship. If a member leaves the church for this reason, it is painful for all, but our prayer is that the sinning person's flesh is destroyed and that their soul is saved on the day of the Lord. So while painful, we know that this step in church discipline is a good thing and intended for God's glory, the salvation of the unrepentant person and the purity of the church.

As a pastor, this is probably the area that hits me the hardest on a gut level. It oftentimes feels like a punch to the stomach. I wish it were not so.

Oftentimes, the situation goes something like this: Joe Church Member comes to the pastor and explains that he has spiritual needs that are not being met and thus must seek out a fellowship where he or his family can grow spiritually. This hurts for several reasons:

(1). I am deeply grieved that a person is either suffering or is hurting and needs help. I am in pain because my brother or sister is in pain. We should rejoice with our brothers and sisters and weep with them as well. Being part of the family of God embraces all of life, not just the good. So if we are empathetic and sympathetic towards the person who is in spiritual need, it should hurt as well.

(2). I am grieved on another level because I often feel that I have failed in some way in shepherding these people. Although no pastor can perfectly shepherd everyone in the church and therefore must train other elders to shepherd so that the entire body is growing as ministers, nevertheless, not everyone is cared for completely in every church. This simply reminds me that we are still in a sin-infected world. It makes me long for the fulfillment of the kingdom when Christ will fully satisfy every longing and need we have. I do not want to fail God's people or my God. But knowing that sin still remains in me, I am grieved when my sin and shortcomings have an averse affect on God's people. I am reminded once again that I am not perfect and fall short of the glory of Christ. That gives me great sorrow, but is intended to bring me back to the perfect work of Christ. He was a perfect pastor for me...and His grace covers that sin as well.

But the pain of a member leaving is still real and I am not always brought back to dependence on God's grace. When a member leaves for this reason, there is overwhelming and overflooding idea that enters my mind. I want to believe that it is Satanic and fleshly. The idea is this: I am not fit to be a pastor...time to throw in the towel. While part of that last statement may be true, the other half is not. No one is worthy of being a pastor and is fit to be least from the sense of our depravity. Only Christ is truely fit. Nevertheless God calls sinners to life and He calls some of His children to be undershepherds. I look around and see men of God more capable, more skilled, more talented, more educated, more holy and I think..."If I were more like them surely these people would have had their needs met and wouldn't have left." And that is why I believe the thought is Satanic and sinful. It's a covetous's a faithless thought that fails to see that God's grace is greater than my sin and that His strength is made perfect in my weakness. Therefore, throwing in the towel is just not an option. The glory of God being proclaimed in the world for their eternal joy is worth living and dying for. Even with our sin and inadequacies we must press on be devoted to this great cause.

But it gives me great pain when a church member leaves for reasons like this because it exposes just how wretched I am. I am incapable of being a perfect pastor and I am envious that I am not like other pastors who seem to lead well. For that I need a Savior and I am grateful that the propitiation of Christ covers a multitude of sins.

(3). I am grieved on yet another level because the member that wants to leave fails to see that the church will always be imperfect but is still looking for some utopian congregation that does not exist. Rather than stay and continue to yield to godly instruction and find a way to contribute to the health of the church, the member leaves seeking a silver bullet or program that will finally meet their needs. When we read about the food distribution problem in Acts, we don't find the instruction to be "find a church with a better program." The counsel is this: "Church, step up and choose some godly men full of the Holy Spirit to take care of this issue." The answer isn't to look for a better congregation, but to become a better congregation and continue to grow under the teaching of the disciples.

When it comes to spiritual needs many leave their current church to try and find a church that has better small group bible studies that meet their social or age appropriate criteria. Small group bible studies have turned into affinity groups within the American church. People form small group bible studies either around hobbies and likes, or social interactions like youth, married and seniors, or they form groups based on struggles with sin (divorcees, struggling marriages, drug addiction, etc). When was the last time you saw a home Bible study with seniors, middle-aged people, teenagers and college age adults? There is certainly nothing wrong with finding things in common with our brothers and sisters in Christ and offering help when sin arises, but our fellowship, connection and unity should be around Christ and the gospel, not sin or sports or social status. We are not the world! They gather and create unity around things that are not spiritual. As God's people our gathering and unity is in Christ not something phsyical or social or political.

So when a person wants to leave a church in order to find a church or group that they have more in common with on an outward level in order that their spiritual needs might be better met, it seems to me to be counter to the point of the gospel.

In the end, when people leave the church for whatever reason, when all the smoke clears, and brothers and sisters part ways, when all is said and done, I am left with my Christ. I still have my true and great treasure. When I see what I have, although pain, frustration, confusion and doubt abound in my mind and in the cirumstance, I am still compelled to tell others about Him. And in looking at Him, my pain is eventually turned back into joy. I wish it happened more quickly than it does, but it invariably happens.

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