Dealing with church hoppers

Go_to_church...This week I’ve been reflecting on a quote from Stanley Hauerwas and combining his thoughts with some things that have been on my mind lately. First off, let’s hear Hauerwas again, in a quote from a recent interview:

But one of the great problems of Evangelical life in America is evangelicals think they have a relationship with God that they go to church to have expressed but church is a secondary phenomenon to their personal relationship and I think that’s to get it exactly backwards: that the Christian faith is meditated faith. It only comes through the witness of others as embodied in the church. So I should never trust my presumption that I know what my relationship with God is separate from how that is expressed through words and sacrament in the church. So evangelicals, I’m afraid, often times, with what appears to be very conservative religious convictions, make the church a secondary phenomenon to their assumed faith and I think that’s making it very hard to maintain disciplined congregations.

This lower-than-my-personal-experience view of the church leads us to a consumer attitude toward the church. We “church shop.” We test drive a church. Over time we continue to evaluate that church, comparing it to our own view of how church should be. Inevitably, most of us become dissatisfied. And a good percentage leave.

I live in Abilene, Texas. Though the city is only about 120,000 in population, we have dozens of Churches of Christ, as well as many, many other churches. In my opinion, this increases the pressure to church shop and church hop. Don’t like what’s going on? Have a problem with someone? Did something that you’re ashamed of? Just go somewhere else.

The churches on the receiving end of this situation often swell with pride. “Look, we’re growing! People want to come here. People want to be a part of what we’re doing.” And we gladly except the church consumer. “Well, it’s better than letting them go to the world. Or worse… to the Baptists!”

In some religious groups, when a person goes to a new church, they need to present a letter from their old church in order to be received as a member in good standing. We’re far too autonomous to have any sort of practice. We’re also very informal about church membership, so much so that in many cases, people never formally place membership.

It’s said that David Lipscomb taught that it was wrong not to attend the congregation nearest to your home. I’m beginning to agree with him.

If I had my druthers, here’s what we’d do when people come to us from another congregation:

  • Ask them pointed questions about why they’re wanting to transfer. I don’t mean that we should be hostile, but we should let them know that this is something we take seriously.
  • Contact leaders at the previous church. Find out if they know their members are wanting to leave. Find out if they know why and if they’ve made an effort to resolve the issue.
  • Tell the prospective member that any unresolved issues with the old church need to be resolved before they can be considered for membership. You don’t want people who are running away from a problem. It’s not good for them and it’s not good for either congregation involved.
  • Encourage people to remain where they are in the majority of cases. There are legitimate reasons why people need a change. They are the exception, not the rule. We need to discourage church hopping except for serious circumstances.

What do you think? Should we make it easy for people to go from place to place within the same city? Do churches have a right to refuse membership or to restrict the movement of believers? How can we better deal with the dissatisfied and disgruntled? Or is the status quo the way things should be?

Disciplined Congregations

Shepherd and sheepOn Monday, I mentioned some articles by Jay Guin that refer to an interview with Stanley Hauerwas. I included a quote from that interview which fit well with some things I’ve been thinking about. Hauerwas says in that interview:

So evangelicals, I’m afraid, often times, with what appears to be very conservative religious convictions, make the church a secondary phenomenon to their assumed faith and I think that’s making it very hard to maintain disciplined congregations.

Disciplined congregations. That’s definitely something we lack in Churches of Christ. In fact, we often rankle at the thought of submitting ourselves to the leadership of others. Because, as Hauerwas notes, we see our personal faith as more important than our community faith, we hold the community to our standards rather than the other way around. We want the kind of music that we feel is appropriate. We want a preacher who presents God’s Word in a way that suits us. We want our elders to make decisions that line up with our personal beliefs. If not… we’re gone. We’ll find another church that does things the way we want.

That’s not to say that leaders are never wrong or that we can’t have bad leadership in place. But there has to be a trust in the body to be able to deal with such. And we have to be an active part of that body for it to be able to function as it should. It’s only in a church that lacks an active membership that bad leadership can thrive.

I could be wrong. You could be wrong. Our leaders could be wrong. Previous generations could be wrong. God is right. His Word is right.

So we make leadership selection a spiritual process and not a series of business decisions. When choosing our shepherds, we look for just that… shepherds. We seek men who want to minister and serve, not men who want to rule. We seek men with a heart for God and a heart for the flock. Once chosen, we follow. We pray. We support. At times we offer suggestions and advice. But we have to trust.

And yes, that can lead to hardship. It can lead to mistakes. It can lead to discomfort. But it won’t lead to anything that we can’t deal with as a body. That is, we can deal with it if we are functioning together as a body. If we’re just a group of like-minded individuals, then there’s trouble ahead.

The faith of a community

Olive treeYesterday we started looking at a quote from Stanley Hauerwas that said in part:

But one of the great problems of Evangelical life in America is evangelicals think they have a relationship with God that they go to church to have expressed but church is a secondary phenomenon to their personal relationship

That’s a powerful statement. It reflects well the American spirit that seeps into our churches, the spirit of individualism that is so strong in our country. It’s the idea that the church is a gathering of like-minded people who share a common faith. Each person’s faith is built in the privacy of their own homes, then they come together to share it on a regular basis.

We like the idea of one man with a Bible, seeking out truth apart from other influences. But that’s not very biblical. Faith grows in a community. The Word of God is heard together, studied together, applied together.

We need some of the language of Romans 11, where Paul talks about non-Jews being grafted into the olive tree which is the people of God. We were brought into a holy nation, made part of a royal priesthood. We are members of a body; those members only live when connected to the body. We focus on our connection with the head, Jesus, yet forget that without a connection to the rest of the body, we will shrivel and die.

Our life of faith should flow out of our time together. The idea of “I love Jesus but not the church” is a proclamation of individualism, not of Christianity. I love Jesus as a part of his church… or I don’t really love him.

Again, I see that this leads us to a consumer attitude. How does this congregation help my faith? If it’s not helping in the way I want, I’ll shop around and find another. That’s not how it works!

We will never truly know Christian faith until we launch ourselves into a body, a local church body, and make ourselves an integral part of it. We lose ourselves in that body until we can only speak of it in the first person and never the third. We can only say “we” and “us” and not “they” and “them.”

But as long as we place ourselves above the body, we can never know what the Christian life is really like. As long as we live in a parasitic relationship, co-existing with the body without becoming a part of it, we will never be what God called us to be.

Dive into a community of faith. There’s risk, of course; it may be a community full of individualists, none of whom are unwilling to fully give themselves to you. Dive in anyway. Take a chance. Your faith will be the better for it.

Image courtesy of MorgueFile.com

Church members and the church

church-487980_640I included recently in the Links To Go a couple of articles Jay Guin published with reflections on statements by Stanley Hauerwas. Here’s one Hauerwas quote that caught my attention:

But one of the great problems of Evangelical life in America is evangelicals think they have a relationship with God that they go to church to have expressed but church is a secondary phenomenon to their personal relationship and I think that’s to get it exactly backwards: that the Christian faith is meditated faith. It only comes through the witness of others as embodied in the church. So I should never trust my presumption that I know what my relationship with God is separate from how that is expressed through words and sacrament in the church. So evangelicals, I’m afraid, often times, with what appears to be very conservative religious convictions, make the church a secondary phenomenon to their assumed faith and I think that’s making it very hard to maintain disciplined congregations. (found here)

That quote fit with some things I’ve been thinking on, namely the concept of church members as consumers. In my experience, we talk a good game about all of us together making up the church, yet all too often we find ourselves talking about the church as something external to us. We talk about what “they” are doing at church. We talk about a dissatisfaction with our local church and a desire to look elsewhere. When church isn’t what we want it to be, there’s little sense of personal failure; “my church” isn’t doing things right, instead of saying “we” aren’t doing things right.

So help me as I start working through some of this, using blog posts to think out loud. To what degree should our identity as a Christian be tied into our local congregation? Is it enough to feel loyalty to the universal church and not to the local expression of that church?

What about the concept of submitting to the leaders of that church? Seems like that gets harder when they are your peers, or worse yet, people younger than you.

How should we be expected to react when those leaders make a decision that goes against one of our convictions? Not just an opinion item, but something that we strongly hold to be true?

What responsibility do congregations have to one another when members want to stop attending one place and start attending another? What if there has been sin involved?

Lots of questions, and I can think of more along these lines. So I’ll stop muddying the waters and ask you to help me find some clarity. Let me hear some of your thoughts on these issues.

(Oh, and I know that those who belong to other religious groups may find all this a bit baffling, as does Hauerwas when observing Evangelical churches. If that’s the case, I ask that you bear with us as we discuss things foreign to your thinking.)

Image courtesy Pixabay

Preachers and preaching styles

7eb33edc0158b7a592b746f5277444341587343I want to bring out one more point from Flavil Yeakley’s Why Churches Grow. This one is especially for preachers.

In his studies, Yeakley looked at the preaching style of the preacher. The preachers were asked to self-report on the style that they favored. One style was deemed positive, seeking to provide encouragement, inspiration, and instruction to the audience, with a focus on believers. The other style was deemed negative (with “corrective” being the term favored by most preachers), seeking to convert non-believers and point out the errors of other religious groups.

It’s interesting to note that the preachers who self-identified as “positive” almost exclusively used the more effective open dialogue style of evangelism. And their churches grew. Those that self-identified as “corrective” favored the more directive evangelistic styles we saw the other day. Only 2 out of 27 in this group were in churches that were experiencing significant growth.

That’s one point that I could definitely see as changing with time and culture. If you were to guess at what we might see today, or in the place where you live, what would you expect the results to be?