Monday, October 02, 2017

Believers in Orbit

Long-time readers here will be aware that I don’t always see eye to eye with Crawford Paul over at assemblyHUB. We’ve had one or two carefully-worded differences of opinion and a number of back-and-forths in the comments section there (and, to be fair, plenty of common ground too).

That said, I’ve got to concede his latest post makes some very good points.

Getting Added to the Prayer List

Pundit Mark Steyn is fond of saying that the future belongs to those who show up for it. Steyn is, of course, talking demography, not attitudes in local churches, but Crawford points out that it’s all too easy to find ourselves using merely “showing up” as the metric by which we judge the spiritual state of other believers:
“Attendance in many assemblies is seen as the premium measuring stick for spirituality or commitment. If you show up you are a good Christian. If you don’t, well, you get added to the prayer list.”
A couple of weeks back I asked a pastor I had just met how many people attend the church he serves. His answer was interesting. I’m paraphrasing here: “It depends how you look at it. There are probably 800 people who call this their church home, then there are three to four hundred who attend regularly, and then there are around 150 ‘members’.”

The difference between his lower and upper estimates may be a little extreme, but I suspect many local churches recognize the same sorts of distinctions when they look out over a sea of unfamiliar faces on a Sunday morning. When this pastor spoke of ‘members’, he made it clear he had in view those who were visibly committed to helping the place run, who contributed financially, and who could be roped into service in the crunch; that smaller, recognizable inner core who would quickly become old hat to any semi-regular attendee.

Then there are the orbiters.

Reasons to be Fearful (or Otherwise Recalcitrant)

Orbiting a local church is not always a spiritual problem for the orbiters. There are all kinds of reasons people keep their distance:
  • One is caution. Some of us have been burned by leaping enthusiastically into a new church situation only to find that we have significant differences with the alumni in both theology and practice. As a result, we now tend to hover for a while before indicating we would like to make ourselves useful. Caveat emptor.
  • Another is outside responsibilities. To happily-busy singletons and older couples, families with young children may appear to be in orbit if they rarely make an appearance at evening or midweek meetings. Still, there may be personal, marital or work-related reasons for regular absences of which we are not aware.
  • Some Christians hold to a too-rigid definition of local ‘membership’ involving the signing of agreements and celebratory rituals of introduction. To such people, a believer who is insufficiently enthusiastic about formally identifying with their local church may appear to be on the fence, while the “orbiter” may simply view the church’s ‘membership’ process as foreign to the spirit of the New Testament.
  • A few of the more vocal critics of the uninvolved are less concerned about the spiritual state of the orbiters and more concerned about what I call “feeding the beast”. (That’s shorthand for helping to administrate and perpetuate the standard evangelical slate of programs and activities run within any given local plant, many of which are modern inventions rather than staples of New Testament church life.) Crawford imagines a typical conversation on that subject:
“It’s too bad that they don’t come to ________ [fill in the blank] meeting” or “They could be such a great help if only they were more committed to the meetings.”
    I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but some churches have an awful lot of meetings. These programs require a near-endless queue of available bodies (not to mention capital, which usually comes out of the pockets of those same bodies). Some of these programs are more useful than others. It does not follow that anyone who is not by nature a “spiritual sausage-maker” is therefore uncommitted to his fellow Christians. He or she may just have found more effective uses for both gifts and time.
  • Finally, yes, some orbiters are simply uncommitted. They may even be selfish, immature, worldly or short-sighted. They may not value the church or their fellow believers the way they should.
Whatever the reason, I’m not sure moaning about them behind their backs will do much to change that.

A Better Way

Crawford’s solution seems preferable:
“The next time we are tempted to say of others that they are uncommitted let’s instead come alongside them and ask how we can help them grow in their relationship with the Lord.”
I can get behind that.

Do You Not Care?

Orbiters may or may not have a problem. But if we allow ourselves to develop the habit of passing judgment on them like Martha passed judgment on her sister Mary, we’ve got the bigger problem, I think: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”

Is THAT what might be at the root of our resentment of people who aren’t prepared to sign on the dotted line?

I hope not.


  1. Since there are actually similarities to what you are describing in many Christian Faiths other than Evangelical I would just inject here something that I have concluded concerning this. E,g., when you say

    “The next time we are tempted to say of others that they are uncommitted let’s instead come alongside them and ask how we can help them grow in their relationship with the Lord.”

    one must realize that one is making an assumption about the other person's perception of how they view their relationship with Christ. That is actually a bit presumptuous and may have no bearing on reality. It would be appropriate if the person(s) had confided to you that they are having questions concerning this and request your advice or support. To avoid this kind of error It would be better to stick to factual items concerning the need for additional participation in specific tasks and activities e.g., because things don't get done due to a lack of resources and manpower.

  2. Hey Q: Understanding that everyone's circumstances differ is wise and right. It doesn't stop there. That wisdom shouldn't lead you to silence or a "live and let live" attitude.

    Look at instructions like Hebrews 10:24 - where we're told we are *supposed* to spend time thinking about what could make our peers grow and move forward, and then we are to act on it.

    That doesn't necessarily mean asking them directly about their passivity (though it could include that); it simply means that I am to do things and say things that will spur 'orbiter' Christians around me to love more and to do more.

    So if I see someone who is uncommitted, I can think about that - perhaps a lot. I can pray about that. And after consideration of them particularly, I should act in a way that will "provoke" or "spur them on".

    But what I should most expressly NOT do is shrug and say "oh well, they have their own lives to live and what do I know about their reasons for being passive?"

    1. Hi Bernie. But that is just it in that if you get someone involved in church and extracurricular activities you very likely start to accomplish the goal you are thinking about without making possibly false presumptions. It will also satisfy your concern about having shown that you are not indifferent and really care about a persons eternal wellbeing.