What I am about to describe is something I’m quite sure every pastor has experienced at some point in his ministry. A visitor approaches immediately after the service and is ecstatic about what he just heard. “Pastor, that was the best thing I’ve ever heard. I found my new church home. Where do I sign up, and how can I jump in and begin to serve?” Within the next few months, that new visitor is welcomed as member of the church, and everyone is encouraged.
Then, however, seemingly out of nowhere, the new member is gone. The pastor is never consulted, but he is told by another member that the visitor was unhappy with something in the church, usually the friendliness of the people, and they are now seeking another church. Then begins the difficult and time-consuming process of sorting out what went wrong. Blame is placed on the church for her failures and discouragement filters to other members who hear the complaints.
I confess that after almost twenty years of pastoral ministry, I still do not learn lessons very well. After these many years, I should know by now that affirmations like this, significant pastoral time, and immediate responses that demand becoming a member of the church, typically have around a six-month commitment level, and then the silent departure follows.
The real issue, however, is rarely thought through: Did we really love the visitor with patient discipling, or was this a joint effort in personal and ecclesiastical narcissism?
Evangelicalism’s Seeker Problem
A basic internet search on church visitors will produce dozens of articles that address the different categories of approach. I particularly appreciated one website that categorized church goers as: testers, seekers, pleasers, jumpers, and investors. My purpose is not to outline the different types of church seekers, but to think through the larger problem in evangelicalism with regard to those church visitors who are actually seeking a more substantive church.
We see this constantly in Southern California with a frequent stream of visitors to our worship services. Evangelicalism is in a drastic state of decline, and I suspect in the years to come that we will see record numbers of people who are currently involved in a broader evangelical church identify as exvangelical. There are those, however, who are genuinely seeking something more substantive. Reformed churches offer a radical alternative to the theological shallowness of many evangelical churches. Visitors attend, often after hearing someone like RC Sproul on the radio, and they are mind blown.
The problem is that detoxification from evangelicalism is a very long process and transition to a Reformed church is not an easy one for former evangelicals. You can take an evangelical out of evangelicalism, but it’s far more difficult to take evangelicalism out of an evangelical. In other words, we have to appreciate that coming to a Reformed church really is a new kind of “experience” for evangelicals—and living with “experience” is all they’ve known. The Word of God is expositionally expounded, the sacraments are valued, and the community is serious about the Christian faith all in ways often not previously experienced.
The visitor turned new church member initially celebrated receiving the means of grace. This was expressed as the single great reason for their decision to join. Like anything in life, when the glamour wears off, then comes the hard work of commitment. The honeymoon is wonderful, but then comes the necessary work of sacrificial love. Anyone who is married knows this. And the connection is important, there is a direct parallel to commitment in the church as the bride of Christ and that of a husband and wife in marriage itself.
Once the initial church excitement wears off, and things are brought to a normal level, leaders in the church begin to see the problem. Reformed theology, piety, and practice are radically different from what was previously experienced.
In terms of theology, the doctrines of soteriology were quickly embraced, but issues surrounding ecclesiology become a major stumbling block. Growth in the truth requires effort to learn the Reformed confessions, but continued catechesis is not a vision shared by the new members.
Integration becomes especially difficult with a people who are very different in piety and practice from their former church congregants. Christian liberty in areas such as alcohol or tobacco use is a difficult one for many to process. Outward expression of religious feeling does not seem very compatible with the experience that is characterized as formal and strict. Worship is much more solemn and reverent. And, the culture of the church feels radically different than what was experienced more loosely before. Yet, it’s not simply the culture that can be blamed, or even a particular ethnicity (a typical woke assessment), as is often done, but it is the seriousness of the Christian faith itself and how it is approached that is radically different from heart-on-sleeve wearing evangelicals.
After these things are experienced over a short time, departures often follow. It would be unfair, however, to blame evangelicals entirely for this response. These are particular challenges that requires a certain wisdom to help people who live in this web of emotionalism and the need for community. What is needed is the hard work of discipling those who come among us patiently and intentionally, and that is the path forward leaders need to think through.
A Better Way Forward
What has been lost today in the church is an important kind of fear that must accompany commitment to Christ’s church at the local level. In my opinion, the church today comes across as if we are begging people to join us. Because evangelicals treat the church as sovereign consumers, when things don’t go as planned, departure happens over the most ridiculous of reasons. Keep in mind that in many parts of the world, Christians join the body of Christ with their brethren knowing they may be killed for their faith. Our problems in the American church belong to our distinctly autonomous and individualistic American spirit that we are taught to embrace.
Chiefly, what needs to be recovered is a holy fear that must accompany joining the body of Christ. This was precisely the Lord’s intended effect in the early church after the Ananias and Saphira judgment. The people were forced to consider whether they were joining the church of Christ in true faith. Playing fast and loose with Christ and his church for personal gain was a deadly endeavor. It seems to me this is lost today in the American church.
When the church comes across as begging for new people to join us, the unintended effect is that the terms of commitment and membership are set by the newcomer. If the church does not meet all of their expectations, as they have been taught as consumers to expect in evangelicalism, then the threat of departure always looms before the leadership. This is terribly unfair to visitors to offer them the place of judge and jury over an entire church body based upon the meeting of their own consumerist demands. And, it’s a terrible burden to place on the body, since it often leads to a lot of self-flagellations in an attempt to serve an unquenchable narcissism.
Membership in the church at the local level is a great privilege offered by Christ, of which the terms are set by our Lord. Yes, the church can and should always work to improve in how they integrate the new member into the congregation. Our typical approach, however, with the church visitor is easy “in”, difficult “out.” But it seems to me that the difficult exits out of the church that we often face can be better prevented if there is more effort on the front end to carefully disciple the potential new member.
There are certainly right and wrong reasons to leave a local church. But departures should not be because there was a neglect of the necessary time to train newcomers in what the church believes and confesses, and to help them integrate into their new community. If they are not willing to take the time to learn the doctrines of the church and the community to which they are joining, then there is nothing wrong with encouraging them to find a church where they can make this solemn commitment before the Lord. These efforts by the leadership will cultivate a more sincere commitment to the body of Christ at the local level.
What I am arguing for here is more intentionality by the leadership in training new members to understand the doctrines, practices, and culture of the Reformed churches. Yes, this requires wisdom in each circumstance, but such discipleship should go far beyond a few weeks of membership classes. Part of the challenge is simply to make the leadership aware of what’s happening. This is the particular goal of this article. Great patience and effort is needed to love our neighbors and help them in honoring their membership vows before Christ. Ministering to those exiting evangelicalism will by no means be an easy endeavor, but it very well may be the unique mission field that Lord is calling us to serve, as difficult as such a calling may be.