Leaving a Church
A Response to Pastor Robinson’s “When Do You Leave a Church (part 1)”
Dr Jeff Robinson, pastor of Philadelphia Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL, posted “When Do You Leave a Church?” at Founders Ministries Blog on 9/24/14 (http://theblog.founders.org/when-do-you-leave-a-church/). This post, like many one can find on the ‘net, attempt to address the increasing problem of so-called church-hopping, attributing it to consumerist culture, lack of respect for the church, and galloping spiritual immaturity. However, this posts and many like it display a profound lack of self-reflection cum hair-trigger readiness trivialize parishioners’ complaints.
At first glance, the given illegitimate reasons for leaving a church might seem like truly lame excuses, but a little pastoral investigation could prove them quite legitimate indeed. I will present each of Pr Robinson’s examples with my rebuttal:
1. Because our children want to go to another church. This may well be due to indulgent and spiritually stunted parents giving into their junior entitled demanders, and doubtless is true in many cases. However, could it be that the child in question is being constantly bullied by the bairns of even more indulgent parents who can’t/won’t believe that their wee lambs are truly little rotters? In churches which have their own schools, the kids whose parents chose other educational options may find themselves outsiders; the same goes in churches where there is a vast predominance of one type of schooling (eg most families homeschool or public school their kids). Then again, perhaps the children, for whatever reason, lack friends at the church. It is not sinful to desire friendship, and our faith is lived out socially. Loneliness can and does cause many kids to look outside of the church, which can be deleterious to their faith.
2. Because there aren’t many people here my age. Pr Robinson correctly states that “the church is not a social club” and that “(the world) should wonder ‘what is this that brings together such a diverse collection of people in such a tight bond of love?'” But that isn’t always the case; indeed, church-hopping would be a rarity if it were as he said. Perhaps the departing members perceive the church to be a collection of cabals and cliques coincidentally worshiping under the same roof, and that they just plain don’t and never will make the grade. Maybe there are undercurrents of racial, ethnic, or age prejudice of which the pastor is either unaware or indifferent towards, or just no room for older singles (for whatever reason) and other “square pegs.”
3. I don’t like the music. This is quite a divisive topic. There are certainly self-appointed, snobbish guardians of good taste, and willful types who are never satisfied unless they are blindly obeyed. There are also: deafening volume; an entertainment versus reverent atmosphere; inane refrains and vapid, solipsistic lyrics; contrived pietistical exclamations by cavorting worship leaders whose behavior is more apropos to a rock concert; and a focus on the performers to the point of one wondering which deity is being worshiped. For example, at a former church of mine (we left the area), a young couple felt called to open worship with contemporary music in a congregation known for its stodginess. The council humored them, but insisted that, in order to ensure that God rather than they were the focus of the worship, they would have to sing from the rear of the sanctuary rather than from the front. Amazingly enough, they no longer felt called. Hmmmmm.
4. Because the pastor’s sermons are too long. In milder cases of moribus Sabbaticus (Sunday disease), parishioners are able to attend church but can’t remain focused during the standard 20-30 minute sermon; one of the cardinal symptoms of the malady is that movie- and TV-watching are unaffected. There is also the problem of multitasking, where a pastor is expected to simultaneously feed sheep and amuse goats. That being said, there are pastors who, rather than preach the whole counsel of God, insist on using sermon time to ride their hobby horses, or drone on when succinctness would be preferable, “…so paucas pallabris (botched Spanish for ‘few words’)” as Christopher Sly wisely counseled. There is also “ramblin’ man,” whose cornpone illustrations, endless personal examples, and idiosyncratic approach to Bible texts produce less sermons than helpings of word salad. There are also laymen who expect Christianity from the pulpit, as opposed to the seemingly ubiquitous American civic religion of blind patriotism to “Christian America.” Maybe pastors should pay some attention to their preaching.
5. Because there are many sinners in the church. The classic response is “there’s always room for one more.” There are members who think that they are excluded from total depravity, and whose favorite hymn verse is “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like you.” But, there is also differential discipline, whereby what you get more reflects where you stand in the ratings and who you know than what you did. Maybe impenitent sinners aren’t merely tolerated, but running the show. So, as discipline is one of the marks of a true church, what’s your GPA? Pastors, do you really love the sheep enough to lovingly and firmly confront sin, or are you just hopelessly addicted to wool and mutton? Is your church an hospital for sinners, or a needle exchange?
6. Because the pastor doesn’t do things the way we did back in 19(add your favorite year). There is sterile, hide-bound traditionalism with inertia born of years of thoughtless repetition, and there is genuinely godly and edifying tradition. Of course, there is the sterile, hide-bound American tradition of anti-traditionalism as well. Finally, there are pastors willing to fight over adiaphora and force their wills upon sheep who eventually decide they’ve had enough of “The Pastor (add your favorite clerical meddler) Show.”
7. Because they don’t have a good youth/children’s program here. It is true that parents – and particularly, fathers – are the chief “spiritual caretakers for the children” but, whether a church baptizes or dedicates infants, there is a corporate responsibility for the nurture of covenant youth. It’s odd, though, how some churches cater to choirs, instrumentalists, soloists, and other “special people” while having no time for assisting parents in providing a safe environment for Christian fellowship and opportunity for youth and adults to interact. I’m not advocating for the stereotypical youth pastor with his backwards ball cap, goatee, and baggy shorts looking like they’re covering a loaded diaper, but for an expression of love and concern for youth and enabling them to integrate fully into the corporate life of the church. Ignore them now, and studies are showing that they’ll ignore you prior to leaving for college.
8. Because the worship/preaching is boring. Pr Robinson is correct in that the purpose of worship if to glorify God rather than entertain worshipers, but that doesn’t mean that God is always and necessarily glorified by your worship. As touched upon in point #4, if sermons are paeans to American civic religion, lists of any political party’s talking points, or samplers of smugness and self-satisfaction (eg rants on the sins of “those people out here” versus how lucky God is to have us on his team), then those sermons stink and are probably boring to anyone with but a modicum of true spirituality. If your church lacks love for God and the brethren – and it has to be both – then your worship stinks and doubtless is boring to these same persons, who are probably the ones voting with their feet.
9. Because they have/don’t have Sunday school. There are families and movements which don’t believe in Sunday school, which is a relatively recent innovation anyway. Such people, though, would probably not be in any church that had such a program and so wouldn’t be counted as church-hoppers per se. Sunday school can be a powerful tool to bring the congregation together so people can interact with teachers (or even the pastor) in order to better comprehend and apply both the sermon and other Bible texts to their lives, as well as allow iron to sharpen iron. Sometimes, though, discussion become mere ploider as parishioners (and even teachers) feel free to opine regardless of having read or understood the material under discussion, and take umbrage at those who challenge them. Other problems include being too academic for less educated members, monopolization by certain members, bickering and ad hominem attacks rather than respectful disagreement, and jejune and trivial material, to name but a few. A well-run program can be a real blessing, while a slipshod one can be an albatross.
My purpose in writing this was not to cast aspersions on Pr Robinson, but rather to challenge what can only be described as his casting aspersions on those who choose to fulfill vows of church membership in other congregations than his. I hope I’ve demonstrated that the issue is not as simple as he made it out to be, and that, with the sort of pastoral concern Gospel ministers swear to show, parishioners’ legitimate grievances can be handled in an adult manner which glorifies God and demonstrates the sort of love Pr Robinson mentioned in point #2. After all, this is what we all should be striving for and what the world really needs to see. But in order to achieve this, pastors must be quicker to ask than to judge.