A constructive response to the explosive migration of believers
As a young disciple of Jesus, I lived in B.C.’s Fraser Valley in the 1970s and ’80s. At that time there seemed to be a church on every corner; a faith community from almost every denomination. The spiritual ‘buffet’ included a dramatic spectrum of worship styles and theological bents. The ecclesiastical options seemed endless. Church-hopping or church-shopping was just a part of doing spiritual ‘business’ in B.C.’s Bible belt. At times, pastors would vent frustration from the pulpit toward believers bouncing from church to church chasing after the spiritual high flavour-of-the-month, and at the same time would praise those who did not succumb to the temptations of lively choruses, loud preachers or hyper spirit-filled encounters. In my experience, most of the migration of believers between churches resulted from dissatisfaction with lifeless worship experiences and ministry mired in exclusive faith traditions fused with Mennonite culture. While there were some who changed faith communities because of irreconcilable confessional differences, those were few.
Forty years later, many disciples in Canadian evangelical churches are again sorting themselves into faith communities primarily aligning themselves, not according to worship style preferences, cultural or traditional values or even confession of faith matters, but rather in relation to a specific ideology, political posture or philosophical leaning. The reasons for church member migration seems to have expanded. As Dorothy from the classic movie The Wizard of Oz said, “Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” American social commentator Dr. Ed Stetzer calls the season we are in “the great cultural convulsion” which, based on historical patterns, he predicts will last from three to five years.
Many Christians in the pew, or those at the receiving end of a livestream, are religiously keeping track of every utterance from the church’s stage. It seems that in 2021 every word from pastors or church lead team members is noted, scrutinized and weighed, less for biblical correctness or doctrinal integrity than as mentioned earlier, whether or not it matches a specific ideology, political posture or philosophical leaning. Pastors are either affirmed or denounced on their public messaging around racism, racial injustice (Black Lives Matter and All Children Matter movements), LGBTQ2+ pride, climate change, COVID, health restrictions, vaccines, vaccine passports and the social gospel. Something as simple as mask-wearing has become an ideological statement rather than a health choice. Some see the naming of George Floyd or Indigenous Peoples in a worship service being a litmus test as to whether a church is relevant and compassionate. Dr. Stetzer comments, “Everything is weaponized today.” No matter what a pastor says, some bridges will be burned and others built. Followers of Jesus are moving to churches that cater to their personal flavour of social and cultural convictions. For the first time in church history, many believers feel it is of utmost importance to have what they hear on Sunday mornings match what they consume from social media during the rest of the week.
Based upon the information from current Christian social commentators, on average, at least a third of every evangelical church’s community will migrate to another faith body in 2021. This does not include those who abandon church fellowship and participation all-together. One can see why alarm bells are ringing within the church! The present resettlement of believers is seen by some of these same popular voices as a harbinger of a greater ecclesiastical migration and exodus. There is a strong sense that ideological polarization will intensify while forbearance and grace evaporate.
The bottom line is that a significant migration is underway as Christians look for faith communities that align with their way of thinking on current issues. Some will leave your church, some will come. How is the church to respond? I have been asking the churches under my care not to panic, not to make significant ministry course corrections and to be kind to those who leave and those who come. For those who wish more depth of counsel, I offer the following:
Stay on mission – keep the main thing the main thing.
Churches that survive the grand ‘sort’ will need to be all in on the mission (Matthew 28:19-20). People will always join and leave a specific faith community; however, the church’s advancement of the gospel must prevail. The Body of Christ cannot lose sight of its reason for existence, which is not to make people happy and comfortable, or to extol specific ideological or political mantras, but rather to worship God and equip believers to make disciples.
Remain anchored to Scripture – it is the reliable authority for faith and life. It is only God’s Word, as illuminated by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers, which truly helps the church navigate matters of greatest import. Scripture provides counsel to all issues presently faced in the church and in culture. Whether its racism, relationship to authority, allegiances or simply how we treat people who think differently than we do, God’s Word has wisdom to offer. It is the lamp for our feet and light for our path (Psalm 119:105).
Build the future with those who stay – the committed bring stability.
The church should not build its future on the dissatisfied who have arrived at the doorstep after exiting their previous faith community because the pastor said something they didn’t like or didn’t say something they felt needed to be pontificated. The disgruntled have chosen your community because they heard a message that matched their current perspectives, or saw a demonstration of actions that they considered biblically essential. It is only a matter of time before their worldview and faith-view will collide with yours and they will once again move on . Yes, be kind to those who have joined your community, but strategy-wise, move forward investing in those who stayed.
Construct robust boundaries – telegraphing what will and will not be tolerated.
Surviving the grand ‘sort’ will require the church to have well-defined mission and ministry values. Both must be public and oft communicated publicly. The DNA of the church must be displayed on the stage, on the website and in whatever forms of communication are employed. Any person church-shopping should leave a corporate gathering knowing why that church exists and how its membership and adherents are expected to function together. These will serve as robust boundaries; a bulwark against those who wish to import their philosophical or ideological convictions into your endeavours.
Serve the community in love – listen, learn and lean-in.
In this time of the grand ‘sort,’ the church that survives and thrives will be one that is intent on community engagement – listening, learning and leaning in. Now is not the time for the church to build defensive walls, but to break down destructive barriers. It is not about abandoning truth, but about speaking truth in love through caring relationships. This is not about compromising biblical convictions, but about coming alongside those who are broken over what they see unfolding in their community, among friends and in their places of work. The grand ‘sort’ is not a reality in churches alone. It is springing up in families, in the office and in neighbourhoods. The church desperately needs the message of reconciliation, peace and restoration.
Devote yourselves to prayer – ultimately, it is God who fixes things.
Oswald Chambers said, “Prayer does not equip us for greater works— prayer is the greater work.” Prayer attunes the church’s work to the mind of Christ; it is a fundamental means by which we hear from the Spirit of God. Prayer keeps the church focused on the mission, empowers the church for mission and guides the church in mission. In a time when our world seems upside-down – convulsing as Stetzer calls it – the church needs to immerse itself in prayer. God isn’t asking the church to figure it all out, he is calling the church to seek him in it all. It is only fitting and wise to earnestly lift our appeals to the Heavenly Father, asking for help navigating the earthly philosophical, political and ideological tempests that have found their way into the church.
Long ago I heard Christian author Charles Colson speak on hope. What was memorable for me was his declaration that the hope of the world is the church. The hope entrusted to the church is the gospel. May nothing distract us from living out and proclaiming this good news.