Tuesday, November 01, 2022

The Jumping-Off Point

Many years ago, long before they were woke, crazy and depraved, I was a big superhero comic book fan. I owned shelves full of them. In my early twenties while still in college, I wrote and drew a few published comic books to see if I could make a career out of it. (I probably could have been passable if I had persisted with it, but I would never have been a top-drawer industry professional.)

Superhero comic books are like soap operas in that they tell multiple small stories within larger story arcs that overlap and never really end. The idea is to get the reader invested in the characters and coming back month after month to see what happens next.

Back in those days, comic books were all about big event stories calculated to draw new readers in and turn them into regular purchasers. However, the company brass were well aware that one reader’s reason to buy a new comic series was another reader’s reason to get off the bus. A storyline that killed off a major character might generate temporary interest from the news media and comic book collecting community. It might even create a short-lived upswing in sales revenue. Equally, such a stunt could also alienate existing readers and drive them away.

Comic book editors therefore advised their writers never to give readers what they called a “jumping-off point”.

A Natural Jumping-Off Point

COVID was a natural jumping-off point for many churchgoers. In some cases, they jumped like the proverbial lemmings off a cliff. Some jumped right out of fellowship with other Christians and have yet to reappear. Others switched churches in significant numbers. Still others saw the health scare as sufficient reason to grow roots behind their laptop screens and become permanent Zoom watchers and virtual churchgoers rather than congregants or committed members. Many departed for reasons still undisclosed, and it can reasonably be argued that the creation of this particular jumping-off point was not a choice made by elders, pastors and church leaders, but the inevitable byproduct of living in societies that had decided to temporarily close down just about everything. We really didn’t have much choice about complying — or at least not at first.

I am regularly in touch with Christians who travel and preach in large numbers of churches. Several confirm my observations: post-COVID, attendance is down all over. Even in rare local churches that are hives of activity, there has been significant churn. Plenty of new visitors and members fill the seats, but it’s hard not to notice those seats were once occupied by others.

Where are they now? They jumped off, and most are not coming back.

Soul Searching Time

Now, whenever a church encounters mass departures in a short time frame, there is a tendency to ask why this has happened. Such self-examination and soul searching can be a valuable exercise. Unfortunately, in this case, because the same pattern is occurring in so many churches simultaneously in the presence of a logical medical and political explanation, there may be a tendency for those left behind to dismiss the problem as universal and inevitable. If it’s happening everywhere, then it can’t be our fault, right? Others fall back on consoling passages of scripture like “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us”, or perhaps “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit [my Father] takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit”.

Sure. Perhaps this is just the Father pruning the vine.

Indeed, it’s quite possible COVID and its fallout revealed and disposed of problem congregants we are all better off without. If so, we should be thankful. Our churches will ultimately be stronger for it. But does that explanation completely satisfy you? It doesn’t satisfy me. Let’s not skip the self-examination process just because we can come up with easy and plausible explanations for what’s happened.

The Too-Obvious Divorce Analogy

When so many people leave churches at convenient jumping-off points like the one we’ve just experienced, it is highly unlikely the story is completely one-sided; certainly not in every single case. Much like the situation when a couple divorces, there are usually longstanding issues simmering in the background unaddressed.

Perhaps the man who strayed had a wife who was reluctant to fulfill her sexual obligations in marriage, which in turn may have been a product of living with a man who didn’t love her as he ought to have, which in turn may have been tangentially related to the disrespect she constantly showed him.

Or perhaps the woman who departs has decided she is better off alone than constantly seeking emotional fulfillment that she never receives from a husband who is distant, withholding, or a workaholic.

The point is that something more complex and preventable than “heavenly pruning” may well be involved.

A Convenient Excuse

Most Christians who leave local churches have been well trained from scripture to keep their mouths shut about the reasons why. The occasional cantankerous soul doesn’t mind causing a bit of a brouhaha over issues important to him, but he definitely doesn’t want to be singled out as the primary cause of a church split. God forbid you should “destroy God’s temple”; God will destroy you!

However, a natural jumping-off point like the one we’ve just had provides a convenient excuse for individuals and families to make a discreet exit without having to go through the hassle of explaining themselves. For natural people-pleasers, it makes it easy to do what might otherwise be very difficult: to quietly drift away. Everyone will assume you were just unvaccinated and over-sensitive, or the elders were a bit too ham-handed with their COVID policies, or perhaps a little too relaxed, or that you have aging relatives about whom you care so much that you will never again expose yourself to another virus. Or something.

Meh. I say there is probably more to it, at least in some cases.

Icebergs and Straws

Sure, maybe it’s the ham-handed COVID policies. Or maybe — just maybe — the policies were only the straw that broke the camel’s back for a couple who never felt loved or included in the fellowship, or who were never able to find an appropriate outlet in church life for the use of their spiritual gifts.

Sure, maybe it’s concern for the aging relatives. Then again, perhaps it’s a pattern of regularly having one’s concerns about traditionalism and the need for greater relevance dismissed without a hearing. The aging relatives were just the tip of the iceberg.

Sure, maybe it’s the snide comments from the cheap seats about the unvaccinated. Or maybe that now-departed young woman was convinced the church was drifting away from the teaching of scripture into major doctrinal compromise, and nobody was doing anything about it.

Hey, if people want to use a convenient jumping-off point to disappear without a fight, an explanation or even a proper goodbye, that’s on them. But let’s say — just hypothetically, of course — that I turned out to be the iceberg hidden under the surface, the more significant reason for a leap off the cliff, or the straw that broke the camel’s back. You know what? Maybe that’s on me too; at least a bit.

We may still not know if we ask, but we definitely won’t know unless we ask.

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