In my experience, it usually takes about three to four years to really start to get to know people. Then they leave the church. They move away or have a disenchantment of some kind and are gone. We are still Facebook friends. We may text from time to time, but we are not in each other’s lives anymore. And so they must reset the relationship clock at a new church.
I have pastored one church in a city-center neighborhood of Chicago for 14 years. Yet in reality, I have overseen about seven different churches. Graduation, marriage, a job transfer, cost of living, or just “the itch” causes recurrent waves of people to ebb and flow. I have heard other pastors call it “the churn” or “hugging a parade.” We are in the beginning stages of remodeling our building, and I have wondered if we should install a revolving door at our entrance for an object lesson.
Sometimes a curious thing happens right before people’s departure—a significant new detail in their story comes out. For example, “Pastor, I have to confess, I’m drinking every night to deal with the stress.” We start to address that together. Then, they move. Or, a friend in your church confesses a secret pornography addiction. When you try to go deeper into the heart and provide accountability, their family decides to check out another church because they don’t believe their needs are being adequately met. This is discouraging. And the sad fact is that they have to start the process of being known at that level all over again.
It seems like there’s often a transition just when I start to piece together the deeper interplay of personal sins, past hurts, and personality quirks that can only be achieved after years of walking with each other. They are gone just when the real work of community is beginning.
A simplistic understanding of Christian community
We often mistake Christian community for the fresh excitement of friends with whom we seem to click. The world knows that experience. You do not have to have the Holy Spirit to feel it. But that glow wears off over time and gets overshadowed by the darkness of sin and the weight of real life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote perceptively about this inevitable phenomenon in relationships when he said, “Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight . . . The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both.”
As I’ve mentioned, I have found this kind of community happens around the three-or four-year mark with people. And when we enter that phase, the reflex is to withdraw. Yet, if we do not get there and then push through it with others, how can our churches really obey the passages that call us to bear with one another in love (Eph. 4:2, Col. 3:13)?
We often mistake Christian community for the fresh excitement of friends with whom we seem to click.
Sometimes people will point to biblical characters like the Apostle Paul and hold up his example of constant movement as a model of spirituality. However, people like Paul were anomalies with unique callings. Paul’s goal was to establish stable, local churches where the ministry could continue over time. When he wrote to these churches, he assumed there was a baseline of continuity. When Paul and Barnabas returned to their sending church in Antioch, it seems that there were familiar faces who were eager to hear what was happening. Sometimes our church’s missionaries, on the other hand, hardly recognize anyone when they visit on furlough.
What is more, Paul’s general advice to members of the churches he founded was, “Seek to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands” (1Thess. 4:11). This presents a very different picture than that of a rolling stone. U.S. Census data shows that geographical mobility is actually on the decline. And an encouraging LifeWay research study of Protestant churchgoers recently showed that “most are committed to staying at their church over the long haul.” But the fact remains that each year over 11 percent of the country’s population will move, and over 20 percent of American Christians have only been at their church one to four years.
Will you consider staying put?
If that’s you, would you consider staying put and pushing through the disillusionment barrier in order to grow spiritually? It may mean a smaller house or a less-than-ideal job, but the spiritual benefit (to you and others) would be great. Or, if you have been at your church a while, are you proactively going deeper with fellow members?
There are innumerable good (yet bittersweet) reasons for people to leave a church. But oftentimes the motivation, whether purposeful or unconscious, is to avoid accountability and escape what the ancients called acedia (that listlessness and loss of energy we all feel over time). A large part of what the Bible means by perseverance involves longevity in church relationships.
Some people say that life is too short to stay in one place too long. But if getting to the point of profound community that leads to deeper sanctification is hindered every time you move, then perhaps life is too short to keep uprooting every few years. Maybe what we really need is to settle down in order to go somewhere.