I wish I could say that I thought of that title but I didn’t. Recently I was speaking at a pastor’s conference and one of the pastors in the room spoke of the frustration of church members moving to the church down the street in search of a “greater experience.” He referred to them as “spiritual tourists.” I thought that was a pretty good term. A tourist by definition is someone who visits a place temporarily in order to get the most out of the experience before moving on to the next stop. Unfortunately that explains the church experience of too many Christians and the watered down commitment toward church membership today.
Let’s be honest about church growth, statistics consistently show that much of it is transfer growth. Church growth expert George Hunter estimates that 80% of church growth in evangelical churches is transfer growth. In other words, as Great Commission churches we are called to reach the lost in our communities, but often we mostly reach members of other congregations. Not to say church leaders are intentionally trying to steal sheep, most do not. Much of the problem is rooted in a consumer mindset that has taken hold of so many Christians.
In 2009, a Lifeway research study of Protestant church pastors revealed “49 percent of new attendees during the last five years have transferred from other congregations, while 32 percent were unchurched and 19 percent were children born to adults attending the church.” (http://www.lifeway.com/Article/LifeWay-Research-finds-ministry-expansion-doesn’t-automatically-lead-to-attendance-growth). Based on this research, much of the church growth comes from transfer growth and organic growth (68%). This trend is not healthy for the church and is actually working against us. For instance, in the SBC baptism and membership numbers are at the lowest level in years and consumer Christianity isn’t helping to reverse those numbers. Church leaders are putting most of their energy into keeping the sheep in the pen and less energy on reaching the lost sheep. The prevailing question today is “How do we keep members happy and satisfied with their church experience?” It should be, “How do we reach more unchurched and unsaved people in our community?” Thom Rainer has written prolifically on this subject, but most of his writings have a consistent theme worth restating, “church membership is not about me.” I will admit as a pastor, much of my frustration comes from this mindset in members. I am amazed at how quickly someone will leave a church that God has used mightily in their life. If there is an issue that arises rather than staying and working with church leaders to overcome, they simply jump ship. Nothing frustrates a pastor more than spending much time reaching a family only to see them leave the first time they disagree with a decision. Even worse the next week they are on Facebook bragging about their new found church down the street. (Seriously, please stop doing that.) If they only knew how it discourages the heart of the pastor and church leaders. It is crushing.
My parents have been members of the same church since I was in the nursery, I am now 44 years old. I have watched their church go through struggle after struggle, yet there stands Terry and Jean Blackwell serving, giving and helping. I have always respected their unwavering commitment to Cottage Hill Baptist Church. They will not leave their church, because they realize that it is not about them. May their tribe increase!
I realize there are legitimate reasons to leave a church, no doubt.
- Major doctrinal issues or the church is practicing things that are unbiblical.
- When the vision of the leadership and the direction of the church doesn’t match God’s calling in your life.
- If you are moving to another town, county, state.
- When your church is consistently stuck in tradition and is being disobedient to the Great Commission and you see no hope for change.
- If your preacher begins handling dangerous reptiles or takes you to the beach on a retreat and announces he has created a new kool-aid recipe.
Even if any of these describe your church (Except #5) you should exhaust every opportunity to bring positive change before leaving and spend much time in prayer about the decision.
Ultimately, it comes down to this question, “Am I a consumer of my church’s ministries or a contributor to my church’s ministries?” That is a great question. Think twice before leaving your church. I was profoundly saddened after I left my last pastorate to see how many people left after I went to my next assignment. It has been one of the most crushing experiences of my life. The change in pastor is no reason to leave your church. Here are some thoughts to consider:
Your church membership is part of your testimony. Part of your testimony of God’s work in your life is a direct result of how God is using you in your church. If you are a spiritual tourist, you are hurting the integrity of your testimony.
The Bible teaches us that God places us in a church for a specific purpose. “from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.” Eph. 4:16. He is the one who joined you to that congregation to do your part through the spiritual gift he has placed in your life. When you change your church membership, you strongly need to consider this biblical fact.
Every church has issues, the only perfect church is found in heaven. Sometimes the grass seems greener on the other side simply because it has more, well you know, to fertilize it. (If you catch my drift or smell). If you are leaving your church because of an issue it may be that you will find the same issue at you next church (or worse).
Your first question of church membership should be, “How can I serve?” and not “How can this church serve me?” Consumer mindset vs. Contributor mindset
Think twice before you leave your church. You may be the very one God has placed in that church to enact change and renewal. Spiritual tourists visit and consume. Spiritual giants stay and contribute. Spiritual tourists seek to get the most out of a church experience. Spiritual giants pray that their church will get the most out of them.