What do you do when the people keep leaving and the pastor doesn’t seem to be taking their reasons as valid?

Q. What do you do when the church seems to be led in a direction that isn’t building up the congregation, in fact, people keep leaving and the pastor doesn’t seem to be taking the reasons as valid, just that they lack spiritual maturity?

A. Thank you for your question, Anita, which seems to me to be at least two, or perhaps even three or more questions. Let me just take the top two: First, the foundation question, to me, relates to “what is the purpose of the church?” “Why are you a church?” It is healthy for a group of believers gathered together as a local church to ask themselves that question from time to time. It helps everyone to keep their eye on God’s plan for calling an eternal and holy people to Himself. Some churches answer that question by saying we are a church for the purpose of worship. Others say they are a church for the purpose of evangelism. Still others will say they are a church for the purpose of discipling believers into spiritual maturity. Of course, the most complete and succinct statement as far as the Bible is concerned on the purpose of the church is “The Great Commission” recorded in Matthew 28:18-20. That statement includes all three of the purposes I have mentioned above (worship, evangelism, and discipleship). Every church should expect to be growing because it is doing at least all three of these things and doing them well. But, as our Lord’s statement: “and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” implies, there are also many other purposes as to why the church exists (see, for example, Matthew 16:17-19 where the Lord establishes the authority structure for how His church is to built on the foundation of Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ: preaching the Gospel and meaningful accountability for sin). I would encourage you to raise your concerns by gently and respectfully asking your church leaders what the purposes of your church are and how they relate to “The Great Commission” and all of its implications.

Second, the question you ask has to do with “what is a valid reason to leave your church?” Many people do leave their churches because of spiritual immaturity; they simply aren’t getting what the want, they aren’t getting what they think they deserve based on a self-generated standard that may or may not have any relationship to God’s standard and purpose for His church. As you can read elsewhere on this site, the vows of church membership are an important aspect of setting clear expectations going both ways in the church. One of the responsibilities your pastor has as a Christian leader is to clearly teach the people of the church what the purposes of the church are and how their promises made in the form of membership vows relate to those purposes. And, of course, one of the ways people are educated into maturity is to understand and embrace accountability for breaking their membership vows when they walk away. Breaking a vow is to break a promise and that is a sin, and, as the “Parable of the Lost Sheep” in Matthew 18:12-14 makes clear (see also Ezekiel chapter 34), a pastor/shepherd’s job is to go after and rescue those who are wandering off. One of the reasons people may be leaving your church and believing they have a valid reason to do so may be because they don’t see your pastor going out of his way to do everything he can to pursue them and rescue them. Pray for the Lord of the harvest (Matthew 9:38) to impress on your pastor that he is the worker sent out into His harvest field. And pray, too, that those who are making a decision to leave would understand they need the accountability of the church to hold them to their vows not to do so.

– Dave Edling

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About David V. Edling

Dave Edling is an experienced Christian conciliator who has worked with many conflicted churches. During his decade of service on the senior staff of Peacemaker Ministries, he participated in over 200 mediation and arbitration cases and worked with nearly twenty thousand Christians engaged in conflicts affecting churches of almost every denomination. Dave holds several graduate degrees in addition to his Bachelor of Science degree from Oregon State University. They are: Master of Arts in Human Behavior, United States International University (now Alliant International University); Juris Doctor, California Western School of Law; Master of Arts in Religion, Westminster Seminary California; and Master of Arts in Biblical Conflict Resolution, Birmingham Theological Seminary. Dave has served as a trustee on the Board of Directors for Covenant College and Westminster Seminary California and has taught in the Doctor of Ministry programs for Reformed Theological Seminary, Mid-Western Baptist Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. In addition, Dave has been a lecturer in practical theology for several other Christian colleges and seminaries.
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