A Musty Book Often Warms the Heart

I have a book on my shelf called Springs In the Valley, by Mrs. Charles E. Cowman. Recently I pulled it down and looked it over. It’s an oldie, published in 1939. The paper dustjacket is crackly, the pages yellowing, and that musty old-book smell reaches my nose as it lies in front of me. Just the kind of book I love.

Mrs. Cowman also authored Streams in the Desert, a similar and possibly more familiar book. Mr. and Mrs. Cowman’s story is fascinating. Springs In the Valley is a book of daily devotional thoughts incorporating Scripture, anecdotes, quotations, hymns, and poems. I am keeping the book open on my desk and spend a few minutes most days reading it. It’s one of those heart-warming resources that renews your love for Christ and your motivation to live for and serve Him. Here is one of the stories from its pages that challenged me. This account is known in Christian history as The 40 Martyrs of Sevaste.

They held their lives cheap.
Revelation 12:11, Weymouth

The persecution of the Christians during the reign of Marcus Aurelius was very bitter. The Emperor himself decreed the punishment of forty of the men who had refused to bow down to his image.

“Strip to the skin!” he commanded. They did so. “Now, go and stand on that frozen lake,” he commanded, “until you are prepared to abandon your Nazarene-God!”

And forty naked men marched out into that howling storm on a winter’s night. As they took their places on the ice they lifted up their voices and sang:

“Christ, forty wrestlers have come out to wrestle for Thee;
to win for Thee the victory; to win from Thee the crown.”

After a while, those standing by and watching noticed a disturbance among the men. One man had edged away, broken into a run, entered the temple and prostrated himself before the image of the Emperor.

The Captain of the Guard, who had witnessed the bravery of the men and whose heart had been touched by their teaching, tore off his helmet, threw down his spear, and disrobing himself, took up the cry as he took the place of the man who had weakened. The compensation was not slow in coming, for as the dawn broke there were forty corpses on the ice.

From Springs In the Valley, 280-281

How “cheaply” do you hold your life? Is it of more value to you than Christ? How will you respond when persecution comes? Who is watching, and may be won by the witness of your life, and of your death?

The Church Member Migration (AKA Church-Hopping) Phenomenon in My Community (Part 3)

The previous post on this subject presented reasons people leave one church for another and concerns that our pastors have about this practice. Let me say again, there are legitimate reasons for leaving a church and going to another one in the same community. It may seem that I should discuss those reasons in these articles. But I want to focus on problematic church-hopping rather than the acceptable variety.

SOME RECOMMENDATIONS

For church members who are considering making the jump to another church in your community, may I encourage you to walk through the questions I listed at the end of the previous post. You may not realize how important you are to your church, how much people care about you, and how your decision will affect you, your family, and the churches involved. Please take the time to prayerfully and honestly consider your answers to those questions.

Here are some ways church leaders might address the problem of church-hopping in our community.

Make members aware of the deep level of commitment they are making when they join the church. We have a membership class, as many churches do. As part of this class, we should include teaching that emphasizes the commitment members make to the body of Christ and to one another. This commitment includes working at living together in unity.

Paul’s instruction, “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, “(Ephesians 4:3) implies that there will be a tendency toward disunity. All members should be challenged to do the hard work of living together in harmony.

It’s much like a marriage. If you are committed to permanent marriage, you will work through the differences and problems, big and small, that threaten to push you apart. Church people need to learn to do this!

Cultivate an environment of open communication within the body of Christ. Church members who have disagreements, conflicts, or concerns with church leadership or other church members should know they can and ought to talk face to face with those parties. There should be clear and repeated teaching from the Scriptures that addresses how believers handle offenses with one another.

Pastors should work at developing personal relationships with church members so that when concerns arise, the members feel comfortable discussing them. Also, the pastors might plan some informal Q & A meetings in order to hear what is on people’s minds and have an opportunity to respond. The point is, church members should know that their pastors are available and eager to listen to their concerns.

The reality is, although pastors teach extensively on this topic and provide opportunities for expressing concerns, there are people who will still not practice it. But some will be encouraged to handle difficulties and disagreements in a way that strengthens the body of Christ rather than divides it.

Challenge the thinking that leads to church-hopping. Everyone can do this, not just pastors. It can happen from the pulpit as well as in private conversations.

Challenge the consumer mentality that drives much of the church-hopping phenomenon. Challenge idealism about the church – the thinking that there is a church out there that will meet all the needs and expectations without conflict or disappointment.

Challenge the idea that the church should never change. If a church is growing toward “a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” (Ephesians 4:13) then it will be changing. Some of these changes will make certain church members uncomfortable. Rather than reactively looking for a church that “is like what our church used to be,” these members should consider whether they should let go of the preferences they hold so dear in order to grow in the likeness of Christ, both individually and as a church body.

Challenge people to learn to live with others who are different. Many Christians make lifestyle applications of Scripture in differing but legitimate ways. These people can function and fellowship within the same local church.

Improve communication among churches in the community. This is a tough one. Independent churches are known for being, well, independent. There’s not much cooperation among them. And every church eagerly seeks new people. They’re welcomed with wide open arms, usually with few questions asked.

Maybe we as pastors should make a better effort at being in touch with each other when one’s sheep shows up in another’s pasture. In the past, many churches required a transfer of letter for someone coming from another church to join. I was taught by the senior pastor where I started in full-time ministry that it is both ethical and wise to make a phone call to another pastor in the community when someone from his church visits yours. When I first came to the Greenville area to pastor, I tried doing this. I’ll confess my practice of this has waned. At the same time, I have rarely been contacted by other pastors in the community regarding our members who have started attending their church.

A quick email to a fellow pastor when we realize there’s a potential hopper in our midst might help. “Hope you’re doing well. Just letting you know that Mr. & Mrs. Churchhopper have been attending our services lately, and I understand they have been members of your church. I’d be happy to discuss their circumstances with you if you’d like.” I’m not sure if this would directly discourage church-hopping. But it would at least provide a level of awareness among the pastors that might increase accountability for the migrating members.

We do require new members, if they are coming from another church, to indicate on their membership application form whether they have notified their previous pastor of their decision and if they have resolved any issues between themselves and others. If we think there’s any reason for concern, we make contact with the previous pastor.

IN CONCLUSION

Church-hopping goes with the territory, especially in the greater Greenville community. It’s tempting to accept it as the way things are. And there is a tendency to be hardened and embittered by it. Ultimately it’s not about me, nor is it about keeping names on a roll. It’s about the strength, unity, and growth of the body of Christ. The church is bigger than our local expression of it. I need to realize this, and accept that God is sovereign and people can thrive and serve in more than one setting. However, I believe we should do what we can to reduce unnecessary church-hopping.

I’m very thankful for the many faithful, loyal people whose feet are in concrete, who are committed to the church and tell me so. Only a cataclysmic upheaval would dislodge them from their place in our assembly. May their kind increase.

The Church Member Migration (AKA Church-Hopping) Phenomenon in My Community (Part 2)

This is a continuation of my thoughts on the Church-Hopping Phenomenon in my community, which is the greater Greenville, South Carolina area.

It’s probably obvious that, as a pastor, I really struggle with this, especially when it’s such a common occurrence. And I think it’s unusually common in our area. Maybe I should try to put myself in the place of people who change churches. What would I do if I weren’t a pastor, and if I or some of my family were struggling with the church we attended? It’s hard to say. But I want to learn as a pastor, and I want to encourage and challenge people regarding the issue of church-hopping.

What are people thinking when they decide to change churches?

Some tell you what they’re thinking, but many don’t. Some tell their friends. Some drift away silently. In my experience very, very few will initiate contact with a member of our pastoral staff and explain their reasons for leaving. Some will play “hide and seek” with the pastors – they withdraw from ministry involvement, gradually stop attending various functions and services, then don’t return phone calls or emails when we try to find out what’s going on.

So it’s not always easy to determine what people are thinking. But here’s what I have learned.

There are people who think their current church is not meeting their needs. The youth ministry, singles ministry, family ministry, benevolence care, etc., isn’t fulfilling their expectations. They leave to look for a church that will meet these perceived needs.

Some are looking for a different kind of preaching – more practical, more confrontational, more dynamic, more evangelistic, more relevant, more helpful for new believers, more nourishing to mature believers.

Some have a hard time being “connected.“ They are not making friends, not growing in relationships, can’t find where they fit. So they float elsewhere, looking for that connectivity.

Sometimes people leave because they disagree with changes happening in the church. This is usually not over doctrine. It’s almost always about personal preferences. Often there is not just one issue but an accumulation of issues that leads to someone leaving. When the church, or the leadership of the church, refines their philosophy, develops new elements of church life or ministry, updates the look or makes adjustments to the culture of the church, some people will adopt and others will depart. Or, on the other hand, there are people who don’t think enough changes are being made, or the changes are not happening rapidly enough for them.

A few times families have left over what I’ll call a counseling issue. In these cases, we’ve provided counsel through a difficult situation, often involving a problem between family members. The family has strong negative opinions about the counsel we’ve provided, and leaves the church over it.

Many instances of church-hopping happen because of conflict. One member has an interpersonal conflict with another member. There is disagreement, hurt, cold-shoulder treatment, and hard feelings. There may be a perceived offense and no effort to talk with the offender about the issue in order to resolve it – the solution is to leave. Or a person has a conflict with ministry workers, over how their child was treated by a teacher or nursery worker, for example. There are people who have a very shallow commitment level to the church, and one offense, disagreement, or instance of perceived neglect is enough reason for them to leave and look elsewhere.

Interpersonal conflicts are frequently business-related. Christians like to do business with other Christians. It feels safe and it’s nice to support other believers. But if there’s a disagreement, it can get extremely messy. Construction projects and investment schemes turn into major sources of conflict between church members. I have seen this happen in the Greenville area more than anywhere else I have lived and ministered. When this kind of conflict happens, it’s rare that both parties will be satisfied with the outcome. If both parties are members of the same church, one often leaves.

And finally, some are recruited, or at least invited, by their friends who have migrated to another church.

Here are some of the concerns our pastors have with the church-hopping phenomenon:
I’ll state them in the form of questions to be considered. I hope they will challenge people who might be part of this phenomenon to evaluate what they’re really doing.

  • Are you avoiding needed personal growth in your own life by leaving your church and going someplace that you think will better fit your preferences and perceived needs?
  • Are you more committed to your own preferences on non-essential issues than you are to the body of Christ, the absolutes of Scripture, and your relationships with the members and leadership of your church family?
  • Is it right for you to run from conflict and disagreement with others (whether they are other church members or leaders) rather than do the hard but God-honoring work of walking through problems with them, having some uncomfortable conversations that result in growth for yourself and others?
  • Have you considered that other members or leaders in your current church may need to hear your input so they can process your concerns and possibly make changes in their own lives or in the life of the church?
  • Should you learn to live with people who are different, who apply truth to life in ways that don’t align with your own lifestyle applications, but who love and serve Jesus Christ with dedication and passion?
  • Have you considered how your decision to change churches will impact others? Will your leaving potentially influence others to respond to problems by leaving also? Will your friends make your problems their problems and follow your example?
  • If you have a family, what will your actions teach your children about how to respond to conflict, disagreement, or differences among Christians?
  • Do you realize that you may find a church that seems to fit your list of criteria for a desirable place to attend, but that will one day disappoint you, just like we have? What will you do then?
  • What is your decision really about? God? Others? Or you?

In the next article I’ll make some constructive suggestions for addressing the issue of the church-hopping phenomenon in our community.