By Tom Rupli
Sing to God, sing praises to His name;Psalm 68:4-6, NKJV
Extol Him who rides on the clouds,
By His name YAH,
And rejoice before Him.
A father of the fatherless, a defender of widows,
Is God in His holy habitation.
God sets the solitary in families.
From the premise that God Himself sets people into church families (His holy habitation) comes the logical conclusion that since God cares about how people come into a church, He also cares about when and how they leave. Certainly, people will join churches and they will leave churches, but the reasons why they come and go can greatly influence the health and stability of a church family. God’s Word provides great relational principles that provide all the body of Christ needs to stay healthy, and Jesus stressed these principles more than any other. He said, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (John 13:35, NLT).
In a time when the very foundations of cultural and political stability violently shake, God has called the Church to withstand the winds and storms of disruption that pound the world. Jesus declared, “Upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18, KJV). The value of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ cannot be overstated; it must be a safe place of refuge and security for the fatherless, the widow, and every other person who seeks shelter from the storm while standing as a united and mobilized force for good. The body of Christ must be handled with great care.
Recently a close pastor friend of mine called. With anguish in his voice, he described how a key leadership couple abruptly resigned their ministry position and declared without explanation that they were leaving the church. Word of their departure swept through the church body, and the difficult question of “why?” added confusion to the pain. Sadly, most of us who have been in the church for a while know the pain that this pastor and church suffered because of the sudden loss of people they love.
How believers enter and leave church families must take high priority in our discipleship training process! The Bible reveals many principles that can proactively prevent “church family dysfunction.” Possibly the best example of a biblical model to a proper “joining and leaving” can be found in the book of Acts in the story of the relationship between Saul (later called Paul) and a Christ-follower named Barnabas. After Saul, the persecutor, received Christ on the road to Damascus, Barnabas took him under his wing, mentored him, and advocated for him. For that reason, the church, despite their initial misgivings, received Saul into fellowship, and the Holy Spirit sent the two men to Cyprus. God did incredible things through their partnership, and the church grew. Side by side the brothers ate together, laughed together, and suffered together. And the Holy Spirit worked marvelously through them.
However, an incident occurred, and they disagreed vehemently about the best approach for how the ministry should proceed. These two great men simply could not reconcile their differences. However, the manner in which they left each other provides a model for us today. Their argument did not revolve around wounded pride or offended feelings, but on different callings and spiritual giftedness. After meeting face to face they still could not agree, and Barnabas and Saul went their separate ways as brothers in Christ. Instead of the incident hurting the church, the church grew exponentially stronger because God honored their different callings and the way they parted ways. There most certainly is a right way and a wrong way to leave church relationships that can ultimately strengthen or diminish the ministry of God’s Kingdom on earth. The Spirit wants us to get this right!
When my wife, Nancy, and I stepped into our first lead pastorate role, we quickly realized that like many churches, our church had its share of dysfunction. People were leaving more often than they were joining! OUCH! As most pastors can attest, it hurts when people leave the church! Thankfully, my mentor, Dr. Kelly Silvers, had taught me a vital principle which provided a catalyst for our church to gain health. He said, “Build the bridge of relationships in people’s lives so strong that the bridge can handle the inevitable weight of conflict.”
One of my greatest regrets stems from a phone call I received from a key leader in our church. She had a deep misgiving about aspects of our youth ministry. Her perspective stemmed from painful incidents from her past which I was aware of. But instead of grieving with her over her childhood and reassuring her that our youth ministry had safeguards in place, I grew defensive. The more defensive I got, the more offensive she got, and you know the rest of the story. Goodbye! It still hurts!
From the very get-go of human relationships, God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). If an individual visiting a church family leaves the gathering feeling as alone as when they came in, they more than likely will not return. If a person in a church family carries pain into the church and that pain is not ministered to, they too will leave as alone as when they came in. Jesus told us to make the main thing the main thing: Love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself.
ALL THE LAW AND THE PROPHETS HANG ON THESE TWO COMMANDMENTS! (Matthew 22:35-40).
Whoa! Are you telling me that all the “doctrinal and behavioral principles” of the Bible hang on the “relational nail” of loving God and one another? Yes, and as Dr. David Ferguson of the Great Commandment Network teaches, “As we increase care in the church, conflicts will decrease.” Building the bridges of relationships in the church must take high priority in our discipleship process. Let’s explore a few principles.
- God leads the solitary into church families. So how do you know that God is calling you to join a church? The Holy Spirit might be tugging at your heart. “Speak, Lord, I am listening!” Have you heard confirmation from the Scripture? Have you explored the doctrines and ministries of the church? Could you commit yourself to joining this local body of believers? Do you have a strong confirmation that this is God’s will? Are you willing to place your life (and family) under the spiritual covering of this local church? Have you spoken with the pastor of the church, asked questions about the church, and allowed the pastor to get to know you? “In all of your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths” (Proverbs 3:6, NKJV). Joining forces with a local church should be a decision based on the leading of the Lord and should be strongly confirmed in your heart of hearts.
- God also leads people to new places of ministry. In His strategy, sending people out from a church must be a Holy Spirit thing. This decision must be made with great confirmation! How should one leave a church? One must leave with honor! “Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another” (Romans 12:10, NKJV).
Meeting with your pastor to communicate the reasons for your decision to leave brings honor to a difficult process. Explain the reasons why you feel God is moving you to a new church body. Ask for the pastor’s prayer and confirmation, and carefully evaluate what the pastor says. A good pastor cares for the people in the church. I will never forget the day Nancy and I had to approach our dear pastor who had taught us so much about the love of Jesus. He had prophesied over us, mentored us, and had been nothing but good to us. But we knew in our spiritual “knower” that a season of transition had come. We honored our pastor by asking for prayer and confirmation about our decision, and he blessed us and sent us out.
Pastor and other leaders, consider these thoughts when developing a culture of honor:
- Pray for every member of your church body weekly, including the children. On Sunday, you will remember their names (which is huge), and by praying for them, the Holy Spirit will speak to your heart about trouble; you will notice when they are not there.
- Call those whom you have not seen lately and ask about their well being.
- Offer a “six-month leave of absence” to people who want to leave the church. Ask them if you might touch base with them periodically. Often they come back because you care.
- Touch base with as many people as possible at every service.
- Teach the church how to remove one another’s aloneness by meeting the key relational needs of compassion, attention, respect, and encouragement. (Great Commandment Network has resources and strategies to meet key relational needs.)
- Have a weekly greeting time at each service and teach people to love one another.
- Proactively teach in membership classes or from the pulpit how to properly join and leave a church. (John Bevere’s classic book and video series The Bait of Satan: Living Free from the Deadly Trap of Offense is an excellent resource.)
- Encourage people to never leave a church because of an unreconciled offense. (See Ken Sande’s book The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict.)
- Teach conflict resolution (Matthew 5 and 18).
- Teach how to properly ask for forgiveness and how to give forgiveness.
- As a matter of respect, follow the protocol of calling the former pastor of the church from which a new member came.
As the world teeters, the church must strengthen herself as the bride of Christ! We are a people of honor, love, commitment, and devotion to Jesus. The church must honor Him in all that we do. How to join and leave a church must represent our love for Christ. Even when the dust settles, a strong, healthy church knit together by covenant bonds will still be standing.
About the Author
Tom Rupli ministered at New Life Church in Petersburg, Michigan, for 30 years prior to becoming the regional executive director of Open Bible East Churches. He and his wife, Nancy, are now thoroughly enjoying serving as interim pastors at River of Life Community Church in Dundee, Michigan.