At least as hard as the pandemic, for me, has been watching people leave the church. People I love. People I care about. People I thought were doing okay, quite invested even. In the initial lockdown phase when we all went online for a bit, my colleagues and I did our best to track down people who were missing. Sometimes the new work-from-anywhere norm meant they’d moved. Sometimes they were just zoomed-out and really grateful for a phone call. But, often, they were just gone.
We’re an urban, multiethnic church about five years old. But the exodus wasn’t unfolding in a niche. All my pastor friends were having similar experiences. Wendy Wang and Alyssa Elhage paint the stark reality: “According to data collected in April and May 2020 by Barna Group, one in three practicing Christians dropped out of church completely at the beginning of COVID-19.”
I tried not to take it personally, but I usually did. I tried not to be discouraged, but I was. And when pastor colleagues started leaving the pastorate, too, it began to eat at me. Is everyone seeing something that I’m not?
So when the Omicron variant hit and it felt like we were going back into the tunnel again, I recognized the discouragement, frustration, and ennui that tried to creep back in. But rather than let them dictate my reaction, this time around I’m trying to respond deliberately and thoughtfully. The scenario is almost the same. The emotions are the same, just no longer new. But I can have a new response.
Here are the six ways I’m trying to respond to people leaving the church:
It is easy to assume everyone is deconstructing for the same reason. Leader failure. Christian nationalism. Gender. But each person who is leaving the church is doing so for their own unique mashup of reasons, and we can only walk with them insofar as we understand what is animating their particular exit. Is it hurt? Is it questions that the church seems to have no answer, or no good answer, for? Is it lack of connection? As I pastor, I can’t know everyone in detail, but I can at least be curious and ask questions about why home no longer feels like home. As I pastor, I can’t know everyone in detail, but I can at least be curious and ask questions about why home no longer feels like home. Click To Tweet
When, in the aftermath of Jesus’ execution, two of his disciples were walking away from Jerusalem, crushed by the collapse of all they’d hoped for, Jesus showed up, unrecognized, and walked with them. As they walked away. That’s astonishing. I want to have that sort of compassion. I want to walk a mile with those who are so disillusioned that they’re walking away from church. Because, whether or not they turn around, I want them to know that they are loved by the One—and all the ones they’re walking away from. I want to walk a mile with those who are so disillusioned that they're walking away from church. Because, whether or not they turn around, I want them to know that they are loved by the One—and all the ones they're walking away from. Click To Tweet
In the middle of the turmoil, it is easy to assume that our situation is utterly unique, that no pastor has ever been here before. But as one of our preachers who lived through the sixties reminded me, this is far from the first time pastors have been called to shepherd through great upheaval.
In the United States, we can look to the example of our sisters and brothers in Western Europe—they’ve only ever known pastoring in a post-Christian landscape. We have the example of first- and second-generation immigrant churches, who have modeled constant adaptation, grit, and vision. We have the example of civil rights leaders and pastors, who led the church toward justice. We have the example of brothers and sisters in China who have always known what it is to be scattered more than gathered. We can learn from the cultural decadence and church decline of the 1920s. We can learn from the way the third-century Christians offered tangible help during pandemics.
We’re surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, some of whom have gone before and many of whom have always lived under different realities next door. We can learn from them and become thoughtful in our response to our own crisis.
It takes courage to examine the way we do church with a view to how it might be contributing to the pain and apathy people feel toward it. And it also takes courage to stay the course in the deep, center current of historic, global Christianity when that is precisely what some people you respect are rejecting. This is the time not for brittle defensiveness but for clear-eyed courage. If Jesus really is the only one with the words of eternal life, then the way forward is following him, big flock, little flock, or no flock. It takes courage to stay the course in the deep, center current of historic, global Christianity when that is precisely what some people you respect are rejecting. Click To Tweet
Mark Sayers was right in his book, Reappearing Church. The church in any given context goes through seasons of decline and seasons of growth. Even while many Western churches are closing doors, Christianity continues to see tremendous growth in the Majority World.
And places that have long seemed resistant to the gospel can turn around in a few short years. When I lived in Vancouver in the early 2000s, there were very few new churches being started that I knew of—and I was looking. But now, a decade and a half on, Vancouver boasts several thriving ecosystems for new church startups.
We might be called to shepherd God’s people faithfully during declension or during expansion. And it is hard to know, properly, which one is our watch until years, or maybe decades, later. So in the meantime, we can stoke our hearts with hope, knowing that God is always on the move.
And we pray.
My prayer life is shifting during this crisis. There are as many urgent needs as ever before. And new ones: “Lord, protect our kids online from any zoombombers like we had last week.” But I feel the gravitational tug in my prayer life is away from what feels like the next urgent thing on the agenda toward my own inner life and the long-term rooting of the kingdom in this city.
So my daily prayer pattern has me praying for my own holiness. “God, purify me with the lessons of the desert, and help me not forget them when we come into the good country.” Whether things get harder or easier over the next couple of years, I want to be leading out of greater holiness, greater intimacy with Christ. Whether things get harder or easier over the next couple of years, I want to be leading out of greater holiness, greater intimacy with Christ. Click To Tweet
When the pandemic first hit almost two years ago, we were all talking about pivoting. But mostly what we changed was our programming, our technology, our modes of communication. Two years in, I want to see myself pivot. I want to respond more like Jesus when people I love walk away from his church.