By Andy Flowers
Maybe I’m a little biased, but I think my church is awesome! It’s a place that is friendly, loving, gracious, and gospel-centered. I love being the pastor here. I love the people who faithfully attend here. I love that we can see God moving in our midst.
This is a healthy, well established church. Our finances are strong, the worship is great, and the preaching is dynamic! We have a wonderful children’s ministry, a great youth group, community groups, a senior Bible study, and a calendar full of social events. We have something for everyone!
Every year we work hard to encourage more people to come to church here. We want them to hear the gospel of salvation. We want their lives to be transformed. We want them to grow in their relationship with God. We think that this is a pretty great place to accomplish all those spiritual goals. We advertise, hang banners, send out fliers, and encourage people to invite their friends.
As the pastor I am enthusiastic about inviting people to come to church here! In fact, most pastors I know work hard to invite people to go to church. It’s kind of a part of the job. There are tons of books and articles and conferences that we all go to in order to learn how to invite people to church more effectively.
The problem is that our love for our church and our enthusiasm for growth blinds us to the fact that sometimes we have a responsibility to encourage people to go a different church. I know it might sound crazy, but there are times when the most loving thing we can do is to help people move on down the road. As pastors we need to know how to identify people who need to be invited to go to a different church.
It hurts to see people go (sometimes) but there have been times in my ministry when I knew that I needed to encourage people to move along. Here are some examples:
- The Commuter– These are people who have moved just outside of the reasonable driving radius of the church. I had one couple who lived almost an hour away who kept making the drive in each Sunday. I knew it was a financial hardship on them and they struggled to stay faithful. But they just couldn’t bring themselves to look for a different church. Eventually I was able to recommend one of our sister churches that was much closer to their home and I gave them my blessing. It was hard to see them go, but they are now plugged in to that local church body and very active in service.
- The Transfer– Every pastor has met this person. They are regular members of the church down the street, but someone offended them somehow and they stormed off in a huff. Often they are just using you to make their other church feel bad for what they did. And usually their complaint is petty. Whenever I meet someone like this I always encourage them to go back to their home church and talk things out. They need to make every effort to maintain the unity of the body. I understand that sometimes people have good reasons for switching churches, but I don’t want my church to be the place where people come just to avoid hard conversations or hide from church discipline.
- The Traditionalist– Things change. That truth is something that some Christians seem to have a hard time accepting. They just want things to be the way there were…before. This one usually involves music style preferences. I had a couple who came to our church looking for a place to sing all their favorite hymns from the 1800’s. For some odd reason they were having a tough time finding a church home. They came to my church because we would do a hymn every now and then and because they liked the fact that I preached expository sermons. But when the 65 year old music leader left and a younger guy came everything fell apart. The kind of songs we sang didn’t really change, but because the new guy was young they couldn’t stand him. They would often wait out in the foyer until the music ended. That’s not healthy. I did a little research and found a small church nearby that still refused to allow drums on the alter and suggested to the couple that they might be happier there. I’d much rather have people move beyond their own personal preferences and show grace, but for some people that kind of humility is not possible. Give them permission to go.
- The Cancer– We all have critics. Criticism comes with the territory. But there are some people who have such a critical spirit and a negative view of everything that it sours the church. It spreads like a cancer robbing the church of all joy or hope or sense of mission. These people resist any attempts at encouragement. Everything is always bad, even when things are good. These people don’t even realize the damage that they are doing. Pastors have a tendency to ignore them and hope it gets better. We feel weird about confronting them because they haven’t committed some great big sin. But the longer we ignore them the worse things get. Be prayerful, careful, and patient with these people. But don’t ignore them.
- The Personality Clash– It is the height of arrogance to think that everyone in the world will like us. Some people simply won’t care for your humor or your leadership style or your hairstyle. I became a senior pastor at the age of 30. There was one lady who had a picture in her mind of what a pastor should be- old, stately, suit-wearing, and grandfatherly. She didn’t like that my sermon illustrations often were about sports or cheeseburgers or video games. She didn’t like my humor. She wanted a pastor who was more dignified. I met with her and suggested that if she was not able to respect me as her pastor then she should go somewhere else.
- The Split Family– This seems to be a growing trend in our culture. Both the husband and wife are Christians, but one spouse likes “Evangelical Church A” and the other prefers “Evangelical Church B.” So one of them attends one church on Sunday and the other goes somewhere else. The kids go where they have the most friends. The husband refuses to change because he doesn’t like how they do things over there; the wife refuses to change because all her friends are at this church. This is usually a symptom of deeper marital problems. It’s not a healthy thing. My solution is to meet with whichever member is attending my church and walk them through Ephesians 5. If it is the wife, I encourage her to submit to her husband out of reverence to Christ and attend church with her husband. If it’s the husband that goes to my church I encourage him to love his wife in a sacrificial way and go where she wants to go. I never counsel the wife to force her husband to love and sacrifice, and I never counsel the husband to force the wife to submit. It would be easy to selfishly want that person to stay, but I am more concerned with ministering to the needs of that family than protecting my head count.
People are messy and complicated. Sometimes they just need a little encouragement to put their preferences aside for the sake of unity, or some prayer over a critical spirit, or a reminder about the purpose of church, or a big hug. Asking someone to move on must be done with prayer and humility. But make sure you are a pastor who loves people enough to let them go.
Andy Flowers, a Western Seminary graduate is pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Woodland, California, and Adjunct Professor at Western Seminary in Sacramento.