In his book entitled “Exit Interviews,” William D. Hendricks writes something astonishing: “Almost all growth reported by North American churches today is the result of church switching and birthrate within the churches rather than conversion growth.”
He’s referring to transfer growth rather than new converts. In other words, it’s easier to go to a restaurant and order baked fish than to catch and clean our own.
Over 3800 American churches close their doors annually throughout the USA. The reasons for these closures run the gamut: real or perceived pastoral incompetency, strife, infidelity in leadership marriages, lack of financial integrity, doctrinal discrepancies, power struggles, persecution, congregational distrust or dissatisfaction (only 43% of Christians surveyed say they fully trust their church), choosing sides on any issue, and more. It’s no secret that church splits inflict damage upon the army of God. Things like divorce, death or sickness of a beloved leader, job transfers, college relocation, military reassignment and the like, wreak havoc upon the rank and file Believer. All of these situations leave the average Christian scratching his or her head in bewilderment as their brothers and sisters in Christ leave their fellowship, never to return.
Is it a “bad” thing for the members of a church congregation to scatter like this? At first glance, yes. But it depends on one’s perspective. Sure, it hurts, causing great emotional pain. Though it’s true, in accordance with Scripture, that if one smites the shepherd, the sheep will scatter, the “scattering of the sheep” has been happening since the early days of the church, often without any shepherd-smiting at all. Whether it was through the influential confusion brought upon the Church by the Judaizers (Galatians 1:7; 2:14; 3:1) or the persecution and subsequent scattering of the Church at the hands of the Romans under Nero’s reign during which Peter was martyred, God was never left wringing His hands, anxiously trying to figure out what His next move was going to be. The Jewish-Roman wars of A.D. 66-70 also contributed to the scattering of the saints.
For the first two centuries of the Church, the Apostle Paul and others journeyed forth across the known world to spread the Gospel. As a result of previous scatterings, while remaining true to their faith in Christ, scattered believers had been divinely positioned, ready to receive these traveling evangelists into their homes and give them provisions for their journey as they went forth preaching the Gospel and as the Kingdom of God continued to advance. Again, notice how the Church had been strategically placed, through persecution, to disciple new converts as they came into being. These people would not have been there to receive the evangelists, had they not been scattered by persecution or any other outside influence that had caused their once-cozy groups to split up. God is always in control.
WHAT MAKES A CHURCH SPLIT A BAD THING?
For starters, there’s the shipwrecked faith of the weaker Christians that so often occurs. Sadly, many Christians will abandon the faith altogether in the face of a Church split, disillusioned as they observe those whom they saw as “solid” Christian leaders suddenly picking up stakes and walking out the door. For anyone with shallow roots, Satan can use a church split to spiritually destroy the most vulnerable. For babes in Christ, seeing the world through rose-colored eyes, nothing on Earth can compare to the sweet fellowship from which they’ve found nourishment. Suddenly, boundaries become obscured. Friends become enemies. Brothers become adversaries. And another church-attender goes down with the ship.
Another unfortunate result of a church split is that most of those in pastoral roles will, statistically, never return to full-time pastoral ministry after they lose a church or are uncerimoniously drummed out of the corps. In fact, though they still maintain a relationship with God, the statistics are alarmingly high regarding those ministers who never even join another congregation, much less pastor another flock. Even in these instances, however, it is becoming more and more common to discover licensed and ordained ministers working in our midst as salesmen, floor managers, telemarketers, etc. Once again, God’s people have been strategically positioned to shine the light of Christ into the darkened life of their coworkers – those who spend more time at work than they do at home – and the Faith at Work Movement is spreading like wildfire. No one leaves their problems at home. A battered wife is still a battered wife at the office. A dad whose daughter turned up pregnant still has a broken heart while managing his crew. I served for 5 years as a workplace chaplain myself and found that ministry quite fulfilling and appreciated by the staff.
WHAT GOOD CAN COME OF A CHURCH SPLIT?
To answer this, we must first recognize that God is more concerned with our individual character than He is in our comfort. Satan and God have one thing in common, friends… they’re BOTH trying to kill us. That’s right. The only good Christian is a dead one! We MUST decrease in order for Jesus to INCREASE. In other words, the world must see more of HIM shining through our lives than they see of US. We have NOTHING to offer that matters in light of eternity besides He Who lives in us, the Spirit of God.
So, what are we made of? How strong are our Christian marriages? How strong is our church? How strong is the sweet fellowship of the saints? Rest assured, the dreaded “rub” will come. Everything WILL be tested. It MUST be tested. Tried by fire. The REFINER’S fire; the fire that causes the dross to rise to the top as the silver is purified, allowing the silversmith to see His own reflection in the product, testifying to its readiness for use. See, the Lord only builds with fireproof materials. As the hay, wood and stubble are burned into ashes, once the smoke clears, stone and silver are all that remain. So, burn, baby, burn! Jesus was tested and we will be, too.
That Christian who stands praying while his beloved church is crumbling, and remains faithful to the Kingdom of God REGARDLESS of what happens to a building made of brick and mortar, has received the highest order of strength, straight from the foundries of Heaven. It’s the grace of God. When unjust persecution comes, when unjustified crucifixion becomes our lot, we can call upon this grace to empower us so that we may remain true to the cause of our Christ, regardless of circumstances. Only the Spirit of God can keep us on course. We can not live vicariously through our godly, spirit-filled ministers. Our Christianity cannot be typified by our worship style, preacher’s gifting, size of assembly, cost of the sanctuary, or the scope of our pastor’s TV ministry. We must resist the deceptive thinking that God is so enthralled with our particular church group and its exciting ministries that He no longer sees us as individuals.
HAVE IT GOD’S WAY
God says a really strange thing in Exodus 23:38. He states that He will drive out the enemies of Israel by sending hornets. In other words, God would arrange it so that the Israelites would not even have to fire a shot – their enemies would be “bugged” to death. Imagine an army of hornets, lined up, stingers at the ready, awaiting the directive of Earth’s Supreme Commander and Creator to drive out Israel’s enemies. Just crazy enough to work! But it’s an order that never came. Unfortunately, for the Israelites, it seemed too simple an answer to too big of a problem. So, in all their wisdom, they chose to fight their own battles rather than trusting in the same God that had delivered them from Egypt using flies, frogs, and then fed them with manna from Heaven and quail every night. The result? Nearly forty years later, it was their children, not they themselves, who would enter the Promised Land.
The point? God’s ways are not our ways. They’re much HIGHER than ours. Victory can be ours only when the battle is the Lord’s. He will share His glory with no man. In the midst of the pain and suffering inflicted upon one’s soul during a church split, imagine a seemingly silly thing like prayer serving as a balm for the soul. Yes! Pray for those who are siding against you! No one can hate the one they’re praying for – no more than we can despise a garden over which we might toil. We’ll chase away the rodents, we’ll water and weed and, ultimately, rejoice as the field bears fruit. But we can never hate that over which we toil in prayer. God is able to cause our greatest enemies to be at peace with us.
THIS IS A TEST!
Beware. The day of crisis is coming to your congregation or denominational camp. It HAS to. The thing MUST be tested by fire. When discord and backbiting, divorce and disharmony abound, how will we conduct ourselves? Amazingly, in my experience with church splits, I’ve noticed that both sides feel quite justified in pulling out the sacred Word of God and using it to bludgeon one another. The Scripture, intended to bring Life, now yields only death among the saints at the hands of all out civil war. Which group’s convictions are from the Lord? When is an issue important enough to abandon all attempts at unity and reconciliation? There was never any greater act of injustice than that which took place on Calvary, the day of our Savior’s crucifixion. Peter didn’t speak out against it. He wasn’t the only disciple not to utter a word in protest. Jesus was led “as a lamb to slaughter” and did not even attempt to defend Himself. Even God turned His head as He could not even look upon Jesus, Who became sin personified on the cross for our sakes.
In light of this truth, what critical, all-important, “paramount” issues are we debating over in the midst of our own congregations right now? Folks, our commission is to “go and make disciples.” If our focus were upon that and ONLY that, living our lives in such a way before men that we might win some, functioning as epistles read by all, there wouldn’t be time, or the need, to lobby and legislate against sin by political means. We wouldn’t have the energy to debate the color of the carpet. We’re supposed to be making the world jealous for what we’ve found in Jesus. Instead, we’ve allowed ourselves to be transformed from a counter-culture to merely another sub-culture with a political agenda, quoting verses at a world that doesn’t even acknowledge the Book from which those verses came.
They see our disharmony and they are NOT impressed.
GOING OUT OF BUSINESS, OR DIVINE CLOSURE?
Many years ago, in Fort Worth, Texas, I had the privilege of experiencing an official, God-ordained, church closing. In this situation, the pastor testified to receiving a vision from God while out of town at the same time the church leadership team was having dreams and confirmations, all pointing to the fact that God was instructing them to shut down their church. Both parties confirmed the testimony of the other that God was leading them to forever close their doors. Why was God leading these people to do such a thing? The people were happy, they were reaching their neighborhood, they loved each other and had a good thing going. What could have been the reason? Quite simply, the Lord had new work for each of its members to attend to.
The “closure” service was held in the presence of several other churches with whom this particular group had been relating to for some time, including the team on which I had served. Many people were eventually absorbed into these loving churches with which they had established a relationship. The pastor spoke; the other leaders, too. One elder told of how God enabled them to become debt-free in a very short period of time and even give their long-time, faithful secretary some severance money over and above her final check. Members of the congregation performed a one-act play, each actor displaying one of the many emotions that were surely being felt by the church’s soon-to-be former congregants.
Strangely, the number one comment I heard from the moist-eyed attendants was “I wonder how many OTHER churches should have closed their doors years ago?” Frankly, I wondered that myself.
Ironically, though I left the church I helped establish while it was in its seventh year to follow the call of God to my current home town, two years later, in its ninth year, on Easter Sunday, that church, too, had a closure service of its own.
Though many people from my own prior congregation have scattered, the fact is, as the lovely faces of scores of people flash through my mind, to my knowledge, nothing but good has come of these closings. I speak with many of them via email and telephone and I’m delighted by the praise reports I’ve heard. Interestingly, the financial blessing that has occurred in many of their lives has been the most obvious good to come of it.
WHOSE KINGDOM IS IT ANYWAY?
Folks, this thing we call Christianity is all about Jesus Christ. He alone is all anybody really needs, whether they know it or not. We can quote Scriptures till our halo burns out, argue and Scripture-whip the unbeliever silly. It’s futile for we cannot intellectualize a person into salvation.
If lost people need Jesus and Him only, guess what the Christian needs? Guess what the church needs? You guessed it…. CHRIST! And nothing else will satisfy. Not even a new carpet or re-striping the parking lot.
Jesus is faithful to complete what He began. He will never leave or forsake us. He didn’t come to establish a denomination or build a cathedral. He created this thing we call “The Church,” the ekklesia in Greek (meaning “called out ones”). As with creation in general, Jesus created it and He holds it all together.
Here’s a newsflash: No matter how overwhelming your personal or corporate church circumstances may appear to be, they’re going to get worse.
You read that correctly.
As we grow in our relationship with Christ and He increases in us, He also increases the scope of His dealings with us. Again, it’s character, not comfort that God desires for His kids. He wants to conform us to the image of His Son and nothing burns away human flesh like a baptism by holy fire.
When the seas of turmoil and confusion begin to swirl uncontrollably within your church, forget about digging into your church leadership’s bag o’ tricks. Instead, find your true north. We must determine how Jesus would have handled the matter (in a word, “crucifixion”), and do likewise. Here’s the battle plan: 1) love unconditionally everything with a pulse 2) relentlessly forgive, right and left, preferring others to ourselves 3) with wreckless abandon, empathize with others and strive for unity, and 4) focus entirely on Jesus, the Way, as the sole solution.
Find out what the opposition needs… and GIVE it to them! Go exceedingly beyond what they could have ever expected you to do. Then, hide and watch.
What God does next will amaze everyone concerned.
CHURCH WARS: A KINGDOM DIVIDED
There are many reasons why church wars begin. Though there are times that the issues may be critical and involve the spiritual integrity of the church., generally, we choose sides over very insignificant issues.
For example, I’ve been told there is a church down South with a roof that’s green on one side and red on the other. This was done because some members of the church adamantly wanted green and other members adamantly wanted red. The disagreement was so intense that the church was going to split because of it. Finally, a compromise was reached. Unfortunately, the red and green roof is a monument to the community of the kind of silly disjointedness they might find if they become a part of the Body of Christ.
In relationships, whenever we see “the other side” as the problem, we’ve been deceived. People are never the problem. The PROBLEM is the problem. We attack each other when we should join forces in attacking the problem. Likewise, church problems are NOT the Church’s real problem. They are a symptom of a much deeper problem. The color of the shingles was not the issue tearing the church apart. Yes, it may have been the issue that caused the friction, but the church had other issues that needed to be addressed, and probably still does. Yet, in our desire to choose the path of least resistance, we opt for putting band-aids on that which requires major surgery. In essence, we prolong the agony of the inevitable. Usually, the underlining problems are very complex and have been in development for generations.
A congregation experiencing significant problems over “superficial” issues should seek outside, objective help. This is where the role of a church-planting apostle can be invaluable. If this is not part of your denomination’s organizational make-up, a trusted senior leader may serve just as well. Sadly, just as some struggling married couples are reluctant to seek help, most churches function in the same way. They see a request for outside help is an admission that they can’t handle their own problems. They see it as a sign of weakness rather than a potential position of empowerment. A church pastor or leadership team believes they should be about the business of helping others and don’t want to admit that they need help themselves. The sad reality is that, by NOT seeking help, those they thought they were helping may be hurt beyond repair as the result of a church split.
Though I pray God’s grace upon you should you ever face the ugliness of a church split, the reality is that most Christians will have this experience at least once. Whether you define “church” as the steepled building or whether yours is of the cozy “home group” variety, where humans are concerned, disagreements are bound to erupt. They’ll know we are Christians – not merely church-attenders- by our love for one another. When we who have the Bible and the Holy Spirit as our Guide and Teacher openly display to our community that we are unable to get along, what hope can we offer to the world? We must make them jealous for what we’ve supposedly discovered through our relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
Otherwise, the Church shall remain the #1 cause of atheism on planet Earth.