Over the years I’ve watched many people come into the church excited only to be MIA within a few short years. It’s one of the saddest parts of being a pastor. Nothing breaks my heart more than to see people slip away from the body of Christ and drift back into a lifestyle of spiritual complacency and apathy.
It has been often stated that the number one reason people leave the church is due to a feeling that the church failed to meet their needs. In other words, there was some expectation they had for the church that was not met.
In conducting dozens of impromptu “exit interviews” over the last 20 years, I have found that many of these came as a result of misplaced expectations. In other words, they expected something from the church that the church never promised.
I can think of five unrealistic expectations people have of the church off the top of my head. Here’s my unscientific list.
What the Church Can and Cannot Provide
1) A church is a place to gather weekly for worship, but it’s up to me whether I will experience the presence of God. (John 4:24)
Preferences surrounding music is a frequent source of discontent for unhappy members. One of the biggest misconceptions people have is to mistake music for worship.
Music is not worship. Organs, pianos, keyboards, drums, choirs, guitars, orchestras, lights, smoke, speakers, hymnals, screens, projectors, and soundboards are not instruments of worship. They are accessories for music.
Worship is not singing. Worship is surrendering. If you attend a large group gathering of Christians committed to honoring Jesus and walk away without having worshiped, the fault is yours, not theirs.
Don’t blame the music, blame the mirror.
2) A church is a family I can belong to, but it’s up to me to develop friendships. (Proverbs 18:24)
So many people join our churches but never invest in relationships. They simply attend services. They treat the church like a fast-food restaurant – get my food and get out quickly and with as little interaction as possible. But sooner or later life happens, and when their world starts coming apart they have no relational safety net. They suddenly expect “the pastor” to “be there for them,” like he’s a spiritual Genie. Just rub the lamp and *poof*, there he is! But that’s not even the biblical calling of pastors.
According to Ephesians 4:12, pastors are called to equip the members to be the hands and feet of Jesus. God designed the church to be a community of connected Christians, not a collection of customers waiting to be served. We tell our people, “If you join this church, but never develop any friendships here, we promise we will let you down. It’s just a matter of time.”
Disconnected people eventually disconnect.
3) A church is a place where gifted teachers will explain the Bible and how I can apply it to my life, but it’s up to me to align my life with God’s truth. (James 1:22)
“I’m not being fed,” is the oft-repeated mantra of the self-centered saint.
How many times have I heard this phrase brought up by disgruntled church members. Once, when someone told me they were leaving the church because they needed deeper Bible teaching, I thought about the last several series I had done and so I asked the person, “I just finished up a relationship series. Tell me, is your marriage hitting on all six cylinders? On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being perfect, how would your spouse rate you? How about your parenting skills? Any room for growth there?”
They didn’t really respond.
I continued, “Let me see, the series before that was on Money. Let me ask, are you living on a detailed budget? Are you giving 10% of your income back to God? Do you save 10%? Do you have an emergency fund? Do you have 3-6 months in savings? Is your retirement on track? Are you debt-free?”
They began to break a sweat.
I thought about the series before that one. “I taught for 8 weeks on personal evangelism. So just out of curiosity, how many people have you personally shared your faith with in the last 3 months? 6 months? Year?
I realize witnessing is tough, which is why we designed a church with the unchurched in mind. So, tell me how many unchurched people have you invited to church recently? Can you name at least one person, who is far from God, that has come to church because of your invitation within the last year?”
“So let me get this straight. You say you’re not being fed and that you need some deeper preaching, but you don’t even do the stuff that my ‘shallow preaching’ addresses.
Hmm, I’m not sure it’s my preaching that needs changing.”
4) A church is a place where I can use my gifts, passion, skills, personality, and life experiences to serve, but it’s up to me to become a servant. (Matthew 20:28)
It’s been my experience that some of the most vocal critics in the church are often the least engaged. They have a lot of suggestions, but no skin in the game.
It’s a lot easier to criticize from the bleachers than it is from the ball field. People who aren’t serving in the church are often one change away from becoming disgruntled.
I believe that the metric for maturity is ministry. I am never impressed by someone’s Bible knowledge, but I am always impressed by unselfish service. Serving in a ministry that delivers hope and healing to hearts and homes immunizes us from apathy and keeps us trapped into the mission.
There are two kinds of church members. Those that are serving and those that believe they are deserving.
Only one of those will make you like Jesus.
5) A church is a place where I have the chance to change the world by fulfilling the Great Commission, but it’s up to me to actually become a person of impact. (Romans 10:14)
Finally, perhaps the greatest misconception of all is when we think that the church’s primary mission is to meet my needs.
Churches exist primarily for their non-members. They exist to bring hope and healing to a broken and hurting world.
They do not exist to serve the whims of whiners.
There is no perfect church because there are no perfect people.
There are only imperfect churches filled with imperfect people striving to make an impact on this broken world.
Whenever we forget the critical nature of that mission and begin to focus on pettiness and preferences, we grieve the heart of God and we fail the mission of the Master.
As a pastor, I’ve heard plenty of those who have let me know how the church has let them down, but I’ve rarely heard from those who have realized how they’ve let the church down.
The needs of a lost world are too critical for us to waste time.
Let’s get busy being the hands and feet of Jesus.
Originally written and published on October 21, 2014
Here’s a follow-up post in response to the MANY replies: https://pastorbrianmoss.com/time-to-find-a-new-church/