Friday, July 31, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: No-Fault Separation

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Immanuel Can: I’ve got something on my mind this morning, Tom.

I was reading this article. Now, this is an old and still-debated topic, and I don’t deny that the author probably has some good points. But what struck me about this article were several things.

The author asks why it is that people leave a church, and then he goes on to suggest three reasons. In order, they are: (a) our subculture (by which he actually seems to mean the larger, secular culture of consumerism); (b) expectations (and he emphasizes in particular the tendency to forget that the church is a “family”); and (c) the “fatal assumption” … that newer is better (which, by some sort of path, “leads the average church goer to hold the opinion that it is better to be served than to serve.”)

Now, I’m not up for church-bashing here, or even for picking on the author. But I couldn’t help but notice that he places 100% of the blame on the people who leave. And I can’t help but wonder, is it not even possible that something in his own congregation contributed some element to the problem?

Tom: A fairly natural question.

IC: I don’t know, of course; it’s his congregation. Maybe it’s perfect. And if he’s talking about only his own church circumstances and specific people who left “our church”, as he puts it, then I can’t contradict him at all. How would I know? But what would concern me is this: the article seems to take for granted that what has traditionally taken place and continues to go on in the local congregation is biblical, good, right, sufficient, and worthy of support — and that the only explanations to be sought when people leave is that they lack commitment, maturity or the right attitude to see that they should be staying and serving it.

Maintaining the Status Quo

I’ve run into this very one-sided attitude before. I’ve met people whose entire idea of the Christian life is to support the status quo. Whatever has been done in the past, goes their thinking, faithfulness consists in keeping it going, and unfaithfulness is failing to support what is already being done. So long as the church has its regular Family Bible Hour, or its Sunday School and youth programs, its prayer meeting, and so on, it is the duty of every faithful Christian to walk in lock-step with those programs, keep up for the team, and put in his or her time, energy and money to keeping the programs rolling. And if somebody tires out, gets discouraged and leaves, it’s 100% their fault for not being in the right frame of mind or having the guts, devotion and loyalty to stick it out and serve.

Any thoughts?

Tom: Well, yes, that’s quite a start. Okay, let’s begin with his comments about subculture. It is true that we live in a consumerist society. That is a good point. In the end, the individual decides what suits him or her. That too is correct.

I’m not sure that’s entirely a problem. The writer is concerned that in modern evangelical culture, “the buyer has the power and is thus the ‘god’ of all transactions.” But what is the alternative? Should we cede to the elders or pastor the power to compel us to stay when we want to leave? Surely not. They are servants of Christ and undershepherds, not little dictators. Most of them understand that.

Choosing Wisely Before God

Moreover, “the ‘god’ of all transactions” is only one way to characterize the modern role of the individual believer. Another is to frame it, as John Locke did, as the believer’s responsibility to choose wisely before God. An individual’s choices (of church or anything else) may well reflect his awareness of his own accountability. If he moves his family from one church to another, certainly he may be doing so carnally. Equally, he may be acting responsibly as a father with an obligation to his children, moving them out of a bad, unspiritual situation into what he hopes will be a better one. As onlookers, I’m not sure we get to weigh in on that choice except to suggest it be made carefully and prayerfully.

IC: Choosing wisely. That sounds like another biblical concept: stewardship.

Still, I suppose it can be true that some people church shop as an alternative to dealing with challenging local circumstances. And when that happens, maybe problems in the congregation go unconfronted, and dysfunction (or even evil) are granted a longer lease because of it. I’ve seen that happen. Sometimes, staying to fight is actually the more godly option than running for the hills.

Two Very Different Departures

Tom: I think we need to distinguish between two very different sets of circumstances:
  1. Someone who has been in fellowship at your church for years picks up and leaves. Maybe he gives his reasons and maybe he doesn’t, but we should want to hear them. His departure may be reason for a little bit of self-examination. He may be behaving selfishly, or he may not. But we need to know his reasons for leaving before we judge him, and they are probably not at all related to consumerism or else he would have left much earlier, assuming the condition of the church has been relatively consistent over the years.
  2. The consumerist church-shopping family who drops in at our local meeting for a Sunday or three, then finally elects to fellowship at that Baptist church down the street. They are not really “leaving” anything. That family were never “ours” in the first place. They were visitors, and we may be better or worse off for not having them stay. That’s to be decided on the merits.
But what I’m thinking is that the writer of this piece maybe blurs the lines by combining those two categories, and I don’t think they are the same at all.

IC: I agree. I find myself wondering, “What would these leavers say if we had an exit interview?” Would they really say, “We left because our church wasn’t focusing on us as customers” or “because we had chances to serve and didn’t want to” or “because our church wasn’t new enough”? I doubt it.

Tom: Me too.

The Exit Interview

IC: I suspect they’d have some more concrete concerns than that, even if we grant the author of the article that some element of those things could be present. Personally, I’d really want to know the specifics.

But the leavers are not around to defend themselves anymore, so the interpretation of why they departed is often left up to those who are still content to remain in the status quo.

Tom: Part of that is really good form for Christians. It’s the right way to leave. If you’re going to go because of differences with leadership, it is rarely appropriate to air them publicly, especially if they involve charges that can’t strictly be proven. Leaving in a cloud of dust is not the way to go: “If anyone ruins God’s sanctuary, God will ruin him.”

IC: Agreed. But it’s also on the elders to find out why that person left. Especially in the case of people who’ve been around for an extended time and then leave, the elders need to track them down and ask for the information they are lacking: why did these people feel it was necessary to move on? That’s what I mean by an “exit interview”. We shouldn’t be relying on guesses as to why long-standing members disappeared suddenly.

This is different, though. The article’s author doesn’t suggest he talked to the people leaving; he just implies he knows why they left anyway.

Tom: And I agree, it’s not clear that he does.

Dropping the Ball

IC: I think that’s what seems to be happening with this article: the author is fairly happy with how things in his local assembly are going, and since he doesn’t know what the leavers would actually be concerned about, he’s left free to make up his own version of why people are leaving. And his version is the kind that it leaves the status quo unchanged.

Interestingly, one thing his version doesn’t include at all is any suspicion that his own church is dropping the ball on something. And my concern is not that we know it is; it’s that there isn’t even the thought in the article that it even could be.

Tom: Well, his assumption seems to be that the leavers have expectations that are unreasonable. He writes, “The church-goer is searching for an organization that provides gala events and the latest and greatest Christian gadgetry. They are looking for the best cut of steak every time.” I’m afraid I don’t think that’s it at all. Not when people leave who have been in fellowship for years. People who are looking for the “latest and greatest” stop by for a single Sunday, check out how you do things, and then head straight for the megachurch up the road. They don’t stay working beside you year after year, then suddenly bail because you don’t serve “steak”. That simply doesn’t add up. People who have invested years in a small, traditional place do not suddenly leave because you’re too small and traditional. Something has changed, either in them or in the church. Like you, I think we need to ask what exactly that might be rather than simply assuming the motive is carnal.

Looking for Clues

IC: Okay, Tom. Let’s suppose you and I are elders. We’re sitting in the home of some people who’ve been in the church for years, serving steadily, but who have quietly informed us they are moving on. Or maybe they haven’t even said anything, but they’ve been gone for a month or two, and we’ve picked up that they’re elsewhere. We’ve come for our exit interview with them, not to force them to change their minds, but to find out if there’s anything we could do, or could have done, to help the next situation.

What sorts of helpful information do you think these well-intended leavers could provide to us?

Tom: Well, it seems to me something has changed over the time they have been attending our church. At one point they were happy with how things were going; now they aren’t. So, what changed, when, and what makes it serious enough to leave over? (In all honesty, I’d really like to know why they made the decision to leave without even approaching the elders to see if things could be corrected, but perhaps that will become clearer as we talk.)

IC: That’s good. I’d also like to see the elders really try to gather information. They could ask questions to find out if anything that is really part of the legitimate church mandate is a problem. For example, they might ask, “How do you see our doctrine?” or “Do you feel you were being helped to grow in faith during the time you were with us?” or “Were there any interpersonal issues that led you to leave?” and so on, so that the interview doesn’t end up being vague. And, of course, they need to ask, “What led you to move on?”

It may be, as the author of the article thinks, that nothing but a shallow consumerism, a reluctance to serve or a love of novelty is behind some people’s choice to change churches; but I’m pretty sure that’s not everybody, and I’d be surprised if it were even the majority of cases. Still, we’d best know, right?

“Newer is Better”

Tom: What do you think about this “fatal assumption ... that newer is better”? I guess a group of elders, or even a single elder, conducting an interview would certainly pick up if that is the motivation. But again, it’s rarely a motivation I’ve seen from people who have congregated and served in a local church for some length of time. Maybe if they are a young family, and their kids are reaching an age where their parents feel they need to be with Christian peers and they currently don’t have any. That happens, sure. But my experience is that when the old hands start departing, it’s not always about going where there’s a better band or more excitement. It’s often because they feel the church is going in a direction they don’t agree with, and rather than rock the boat, they prefer to quietly move on down the street.

IC: Yep, that’s more normal.

Tom: Let me ask you something, IC: Is all this really so terrible? These people are still Christians, and they intend to still meet with other Christians. They are probably still maintaining friendships with some in the church they are leaving. They are probably still in the same neighborhood, or if not, then only a few miles down the road. How they present their departure to the world need not even involve a bad testimony if it’s done right. So is it really the end of the world if Church A remains a little bit small, pokey and Victorian while Church B goes for big, loud and modern? If Christians are still attending, still learning, and still growing in an environment that works for them and their family, as an elder, I’d be saying, “Go, with the Lord’s blessing.”

Should it really turn into the sort of competition to fill seats that our writer envisions? We’re not that shallow and partisan, are we?

The Victorian Museum

IC: I hope not. But again, it’s kind of typical in the Victorian-style meeting to assume that because things have been going along a particular way as long as anybody can remember, they are fine, and they ought to continue in the Victorian mode. Maybe that’s why the author never even considers the possibility there might be something needing change in his own local church. And it’s also kind of typical for some in the Victorian-style churches to think that others that have done something more modern must necessarily have “departed the faith” in some fashion. But that’s not necessarily true at all. It might be; it might not be. So long as the church to which the people are going is a Bible-obeying one, it matters very little whether its architecture and procedures are Victorian or something newer; though why we would still be Victorian today needs some looking at … the old gal, Victoria herself, has been gone a long time, so why should a local church look and act like a Victorian museum today?

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