Church Turnover and the Work of Cultivating the Kingdom

I was sitting in our gathering this past Sunday noticing the numbers of people who weren’t there. This is a bad habit for pastors. Nonetheless I shamefully imbibed.
The spaceimages-1 was full yet several people were missing. We only seat about 200 and we sit in the round so it’s easy to notice missing people. We’ve gone through some strange turnover in the last couple years and I grieve when it happens. Sometimes I’ve grieved for months over someone who has left.

I think pastors should be careful about the nature of this grief. I don’t think we should be casual when people leave (“they didn’t agree with us – it was time they found another church”). On the other hand, there are other times when we should understand this is the way God shapes a community. People are going to move – sometimes for wrong reasons, sometimes for good ones. We should seek them out, discern the will of God with them and bless them in their sending.

The main issue here in church turnover is what God is doing to form His Kingdom. I once heard Darrell Guder say “stop looking at visitors as new members – instead ask “what purpose God has for sending these persons here?” In the same presentation I heard Guder say “The apostles never went out to save anyone … they went out to call together a community to witness to God’s Kingdom.” Although I don’t necessarily subscribe to the first part of that statement, Guder puts church turnover into context.

I urge four things in relation to turnover.

1. Be intentional about calling people into the Kingdom. Each visitor, each person becoming part of the church community, needs to be nurtured into life in the Kingdom. The pastors and leaders should take regular time to sit, have coffee, and listen and call people into this life of allowing Jesus to reign in our lives and the life of our church, and to discern the marvelous things He is doing in and around us that we can participate in.  Each time someone gets this, it joins the church body into a more cohesive social unit that God can reign in and over to do His miraculous work of His Kingdom. Get together with any people hanging out with the church and ask nurturing questions: Where is God working in your life? How are you submitting to the King and seeing His work flourish in and among your life?

2. Be cautious about people who leave saying “I didn’t get this particular need met.” When someone tells me this I got to be cautious. I think we need to listen. We need to take note of the issues we’re not dealing with that prompted this person to leave. But pastors can get so caught up in taking care of people’s needs, building programs that appeal to people’s needs (so they won’t leave) that take care of what people think they need or their children need, and in the end we leave little space for God to work in power among us for His Kingdom. We end up just maintaining our Americanized consumer lives. (BTW most of the people leaving our church were not in this category).

When we call people into the Kingdom life, the “so much more” beyond immediate self focused need, some people will leave. But as long as we’ve done the job of humbly pastorally directing people into the life in His reign, then I’ve got to be all right with that.

3. No one should leave out of anger-conflict . I urge pastors not to quickly dismiss the person who isn’t getting it or who balks at the most basic moves of the Kingdom. Like, at our body, we consider the process of reconciling conflict as ground zero of where the Kingdom breaks in. Jesus says “wherever two or more are gathered” and reach agreement “there am I in the midst.” Whatever is bound on earth is bound in heaven, loosed on earth, loosed in heaven.” The Kingdom breaks in, demons are defeated, people are actually healed in the process.
Yet, sadly, most people will resist. We are all trained to think conflict is about defending or winning not about the Kingdom breaking in. Pastors must model subordination to the one who is in question, pastors must lead by humility, ask questions and listen, submit first to what is being aimed at the pastor, assure and stoke imagination for what God wants to do in each of us and into the world through these times of discernment.

4. Use people’s neediness to direct them into the Kingdom. Calling people into the Kingdom means using people’s desires for immediate solutions to their problems to call them into God’s Kingdom. We must help people see that any want or need will never ultimately be fulfilled (only temporarily satiated) by a certain program or approach to church.  For those who seek ready made fellowship, we need to nurture the incredible community that happens when just a few of us gather in submission to Christ to look for His Kingdom work, and pray and enter in (think Acts 2). For those who seek a better job or more job satisfaction, we need to nurture the incredible job satisfaction that comes from seeing one’s job as the arena for God to work in us to transform the world in Christ. For those seeking a better children’s ministry to keep their children/teenagers happy or content, we need to nurture a community that does not entertain children, but trains them, into a way of being in the world where Jesus is Lord  (not them or their immediate desires). Once they experience this incredibly full and peaceful world, any thing else will seem shallow and this will mean a lot in the college years to come.
Sadly of course, there will be those who don’t see things in this way. They might leave an d we should bless them with peace. This is fine. This is God’s work. I’m the gardener, He’s the one who makes things grow.

I think each time we spend time with someone entering or leaving the church body  we are building the Kingdom. I think this should be a regular rhythm of church planters but also every pastor. I think you do this for five, six, ten years… little outposts for the Kingdom are built with explosive potential for God’s power to be revealed. Turnover is to be expected, but it should not be dismissed. It’s the opportunity to be used to build His Kingdom. What other experiences do you have with turnover as the means for God to build His Kingdom?


P.S. For those looking for the second post on “Being Missional Among the GBLT peoples,” I hope to have it up by Friday. The conversation has been thick on that post and I’ve been swamped …

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