Sovereign Ecclesiastical Consumers

“A growing number of evangelicals are unwilling to commit themselves to any particular congregation. Operating as sovereign ecclesiastical consumers, they hop from church to church looking for the best spiritual deal in town.”

“If evangelicals still value their heritage, they can lament the obscurity into which the church visible has sunk, a tragedy to which they have contributed in both word and deed.  Furthermore, they can commit themselves toward a rediscovery of the church in our time, not just out of faithfulness to a tradition, but in devotion to their Lord who promised, ‘I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’” 

“Evangelicals need to affirm aggressively the necessary connection between faith in Christ and commitment to his church. So called solitary or independent Christians need to be incorporated into the life and discipline of some congregation.  Those who are already church members need to remain committed to their church, taking seriously their accountability to the congregation and resisting the temptation to jump ship when problems develop.” 

“If the church is a nurturing mother for the souls of believers, as John Calvin proclaimed, those disconnected from her are nothing more than spiritual orphans. They are cut off from a vital source of spiritual nourishment and growth.  They may think that spiritual fitness is an individual matter, but their failure to participate in the corporate life of God’s people can only stunt the kind of growth in grace that the apostle Paul envisioned …”  (Christianity Today, 3/11/91, In Search of the Visible Church, R. Paterson).    

“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (I Corinthians 3:16-17, ESV).

“It is unfortunately possible for people to attempt to build the church out of every imaginable human system predicated on merely worldly wisdom, be it philosophy, pop-psychology, managerial techniques, relational good feelings, or what have you. But at the final judgment, all such building (and perhaps countless other forms, where systems have become more important than the gospel itself) will be shown for what it is: something merely human, with no character of Christ or His gospel in it. This is one of the few texts in the NT where we are exposed both to an understanding of the nature of the local church (God’s temple indwelt by His Spirit) and where the warning of v. 17 makes it clear how important the local church is to God Himself.”        

“One of the desperate needs of the church is to recapture this vision of what it is by grace, and therefore also what God intends it to be. In most Protestant circles one tends to take the local church altogether too lightly. As the temple of God they are expected to live as His alternative both to the pagan temples and to the way of life that surrounds them. …. So sacred to God is His temple that those who would destroy it (as they were doing by their quarrels and worldly wisdom) will themselves be destroyed by God (3:17)”  (Pp. 145, 149, I Corinthians, N.I.C.N.T., Gordon Fee).  

Note the close connection between a commitment to Christ and to His church (Mt. 16:18; 25:40; Lk. 10:2; Acts 2:47, 9:4; I Cor. 3;6; Eph. 5:25; Heb. 6:10).   

Steve Cornell                                                                                                                                                                    

When people leave a Church

  • How should a local Church respond when members or regular attendees leave?
  • What should Church leaders do to minimize misunderstanding and disunity?

There is nothing unusual about people leaving churches. Larger Churches might not feel the effects of losing people as much as smaller ones — but all Churches face the issue.

In Churches where everyone knows everyone else, there will be more confusion and misunderstanding when people leave. This could create an atmosphere of doubt and even unhealthy introspection.

Church leaders must offer preventative guidance to their congregations on how to respond to people leaving their Churches. It’s also important to emphasize what God desires for relationships in His Church. Consider teaching the Church to follow a community covenant based on the fruit of the Spirit.

Community Covenant

In dependence on the Holy Spirit, we agree that our words, attitudes and actions toward one another will be expressed lovingly, joyfully, peacefully, patiently, kindly, generously, faithfully, gently and with self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)

The reasons individuals have for leaving can vary greatly. Sometimes it’s simply geographic necessity. Other cases involve more personal and complex reasons. Regardless of circumstances, it’s important for the rest of the body to respond with grace and maturity.  

Five points for congregational instruction

1. Avoid hasty conclusions – Encourage people to avoid jumping to conclusions about the departure of certain individuals or families being an automatic indication of problems inherent in the church itself. From a distance, it may be difficult to discern any other reason why a seemingly content person leaves, but this is not the same as knowing that there is no other reason.

2. Guard your tongue – Instruct the Church family not to engage in speculation or gossip regarding specific cases. The results of this are always negative and possibly sinful (Proverbs 18:8, 20:19, 26:22).

3. Seek leadership – Encourage the people to direct specific questions to the church leadership. While the leaders will provide as much insight as possible, the amount of information which can be ethically disclosed will vary. Since the leadership of a Church is often involved in ongoing communication with a departing party, it would neither be proper nor profitable for a public statement to be made. This allows the individuals proper time to evaluate their decision, while avoiding a possible barrier to their willingness to return.

4.  Trust leadership - It’s the responsibility of the other members to trust and support the leadership, praying for and encouraging them (I Thess. 5:12,13; Heb. 13:17).

5. Learn Biblical principles – Since Scripture is the only authoritative guide for the Church, people should be taught the principles of Matthew 5:23-24; 18:15-18: I Peter 4:8 before there is need to apply them.

Sample congregational letter:

Dear ______________________ Church,

We are thankful that God has brought many committed believers to share in the life and ministry of our Church family. Occasionally, some from our number will choose to leave our fellowship. When this happens, to avoid speculation and misunderstanding, we encourage you to direct questions you may have to the leadership. To the best of our ability and within proper guidelines, we will try to provide answers. Let us take seriously our responsibility to be “diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).  

Please reflect on the following Scriptures:

    • “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18).
    • “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace …” (Romans 14:19).
    • “Make every effort to keep the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).
    • “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy …” (Hebrews 12:14).
    • It is to a man’s honor to avoid strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel (Proverbs 20:3).
    • “Do everything without complaining or arguing” (Philippians 2:14).
    • “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins (i.e. offenses)” (I Peter 4:8).
    • “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:17-18)

   (The pastor/staff _________________________)

Be sure to also teach your congregation the importance of practicing unity on debatable matters and protecting your Church from divisive people.

Helpful resources 

Steve Cornell

Warning to Church hoppers and pastors

Well-churched areas make fertile soil for the proverbial church-hopper. I know this because I’ve been a pastor in such an area for more than 29 years!

Lancaster, Pennsylvania is an unusually churched community. This comes with blessings and challenges.

The Churches exert great influence and perform countless acts of service to our larger community. But in well-churched areas, the ecclesiastical pattern is often the rotation of the saints. The Church furniture keeps moving. The fish swim from fish bowl to fish bowl. The sheep sample a variety of flocks.

Perhaps it’s just human nature to take good things for granted when surrounded by so much blessing. But how should we think about this trend?

Most pastors admit that too many people leave churches for superficial reasons. The span covers anything from music styles to carpet colors. Sometimes people leave because of disappointment with the pastoral staff not meeting their expectations. Some leave because they can’t (or won’t) get along with other church members. Community always tests the integrity of one’s walk with Christ. We are not called to walk alone. Yet walking together is a challenge. The little quip is well-heard:

“To dwell above with saints we love will certainly be glory; to live below with saints we know, that’s a different story!”

I believe there are some good reasons for leaving a Church. And to be completely fair, I acknowledge with sadness that the overall health of local churches is poor. Many Churches find themselves struggling through identity crises under weak leadership. This leaves people with feelings of instability and a desire for confident leadership. Pastors are often to blame for taking Churches through changes without teaching the people why it is necessary or helping them understand the biblical validity of the new direction. Change is never easy but it’s even harder without the instruction to prepare for it.

Over the years, we’ve had many people join us who have left other Churches. When this happens, we (leaders) try to make sure they’re leaving on good terms and for good reasons. We always appreciate it when they don’t treat their departure lightly. For some of these people, leaving their Church has been an agonizing and even heartbreaking trial. We have people come to us from Churches they attended their entire lives. Though strongly convinced they must leave, the process is painful. I see it on their faces when they begin to visit with us. I know that they need time to work things out and adjust. But I encourage them not to linger too long because we all need true biblical community in our walk with Christ (see: Hebrews 3:12-14).

Good reasons for leaving a Church

There are good reasons for leaving a church. False doctrine, unqualified leadership, misguided focus (lack of commitment to evangelism and discipleship), absence of accountability for righteous living,— these are issues to be taken seriously. But leaving a Church should not be taken lightly. Even if a believer has good reasons for leaving a Church, it should be done in a respectful manner. This should involve communication and appropriate expressions of appreciation. When speaking to others about the Church you are leaving, it should be done with honesty but as respectfully as possible. Good decisions are made in response to God not in reaction to man.

A closer look at Church hopping:

The problem of Church hopping is an example of the overall instability of our culture. It often reflects a deeply troubling trend of how easily people slide in and out of commitments. “Commitment” has become a revisable term in almost all spheres of life. With the prevailing discontentment in our culture, people are endlessly looking for something better. But better, often means more exciting, entertaining– more satisfying to the ruling self. I believe that Churches calling for higher levels of commitment should expect to be smaller. Although I pastor a relatively large Church, in 25 years of ministry as a senior pastor, I have often witnessed this disturbing trend. Please don’t take this as a slam against all mega-churches, but I truly believe that our Church would be much larger if we lowered the bar of commitment.

Confessions of a Church hopper:

In an article entitled “Confessions of a (Recovering) Church-hopper”, John Fischer acknowledged that, “In our free-market, commodity-rich society, it’s understandable that we would approach church as we would a shopping mall of spiritual products and services. This is the way our culture operates. In our hymnals we can still find those great hymns of the church like ‘A Mighty Fortress’ and ‘The Church’s One Foundation,’ but in our worship and practice we are probably more consistent with the Motown hit ‘You Better Shop Around.’”

Fischer describes the following scene from a church-hopping family: “‘Where shall we go this morning, dear?’ he says. ‘The music is great at Calvary but I like the teaching at Grace.’ ‘Don’t forget the kids,’ she says. ‘The youth program at Bethany is the best of all.’  ‘I’ve got it.  We’ll drop the kids off at Bethany and go to Grace for teaching, and then we can start going to the Saturday night worship and praise services at Calvary.’”

What’s wrong with this picture? Fischer suggests at least three things:

First, we become critical consumers.

“As consumers we reserve the right to pass judgment on the products and services we use, and the companies that service us begin to cater to our demands. ‘The customer is always right’ may work well at McDonald’s, but in a church it undermines the authority of the Word of God and the leaders God has called to represent Him. We do not go to a particular church to decide whether that church is doing everything right, but to hear from God and humbly find out where we went wrong that week in our own lives and what we need to do to make it right.”

Second, we become invisible spectators.

“Church-hopping turns you into a nondescript pewsitter. A number. A statistic. When you’re shopping around, you never stay in one place long enough to know anybody or be known. We like this because we have gotten into a habit of being anonymous in our culture. Church-hopping helps protect anonymity we already possess, and it keeps us alone.”

Third, we become detached from what we are.

“When you were a child, did you ever make a church with your hands folded together, forefingers pointed up like a steeple and all your fingers interlocked inside? Remember opening your hands to see all the people?  Well, that’s exactly it. We are the church. You and I are the fingers and toes and eyes and ears of the body of Christ. To be only a spectator in church is to detach yourself from who you are — like cutting off your fingers.”

A word of caution to pastors:

Be wise in how you receive those who “hop” your way. Don’t feel obligated to receive all of them and watch out for those who “secretly slip in among you” (Jude 4). Make sure that people leave a Church for good reasons and on as good terms as possible. I am convinced that the leadership and identity crises in Churches force many growing Christians to move on to places where they can flourish for God. But their attitude in leaving is crucial. Never allow someone under appropriate biblical discipline from one assembly to join your Church.

Remember this well established rule: Church hoppers who hop your way and gush praise all over you (while criticizing their former church) will soon leave your Church with the same critical attitude. 

Finally, never advertise your ministry in a way that encourages people to leave their Churches because you have something better to offer them.

Jesus said, “I will build my Church.” We dare not work at cross purposes with Him.

Steve Cornell

Note: Our church offers electives for the Sunday School hour during summer months. Each summer, I teach an elective titled, A Biblical View of the Church. We cordially require those who wish to pursue membership to take this elective. The class provides a means for helping people sort through tradition and experience in a context of Biblical mandates. It also supplies important information for making an informed decision about our Church.

Seven false brands of Christianity

Here’s a great list for helping Church members evaluate the ways they approach Christianity and the life of the Church:

1. Formalism. “I participate in the regular meetings and ministries of the church, so I feel like my life is under control. I’m always in church, but it really has little impact on my heart or on how I live. I may become judgmental and impatient with those who do not have the same commitment as I do.”

2. Legalism. “I live by the rules—rules I create for myself and rules I create for others. I feel good if I can keep my own rules, and I become arrogant and full of contempt when others don’t meet the standards I set for them. There is no joy in my life because there is no grace to be celebrated.”

3. Mysticism. “I am engaged in the incessant pursuit of an emotional experience with God. I live for the moments when I feel close to him, and I often struggle with discouragement when I don’t feel that way. I may change churches often, too, looking for one that will give me what I’m looking for.”

4. Activism. “I recognize the missional nature of Christianity and am passionately involved in fixing this broken world. But at the end of the day, my life is more of a defense of what’s right than a joyful pursuit of Christ.”

5. Biblicism. “I know my Bible inside and out, but I do not let it master me. I have reduced the gospel to a mastery of biblical content and theology, so I am intolerant and critical of those with lesser knowledge.”

6. Therapism. “I talk a lot about the hurting people in our congregation, and how Christ is the only answer for their hurt. Yet even without realizing it, I have made Christ more Therapist than Savior. I view hurt as a greater problem than sin—and I subtly shift my greatest need from my moral failure to my unmet needs.”

7. Social-ism. “The deep fellowship and friendships I find at church have become their own idol. The body of Christ has replaced Christ himself, and the gospel is reduced to a network of fulfilling Christian relationships.”

(List From: How People Change by Paul Tripp and Tim Lane)

Commenting on these false brands, Tullian Tchividjian noted that, “It’s the idols inside the church that ought to concern Christians most. It’s easier for Christians to identify worldly idols such as money, power, selfish ambition, sex, and so on. It’s the idols inside the church that we have a harder time identifying.”

“For instance, we know it’s wrong to bow to the god of power—but it’s also wrong to bow to the god of preferences. We know it’s wrong to worship immorality—but it’s also wrong to worship morality. We know it’s wrong to seek freedom by breaking the rules—but it’s also wrong to seek freedom by keeping them. We know God hates unrighteousness—but he also hates self-righteousness. We know crime is a sin—but so is control. If people outside the church try to save themselves by being bad; people inside the church try to save themselves by being good.”

“The good news of the gospel is that both inside and outside the church, there is only One Savior and Lord, namely Jesus. And he came, not to angrily strip away our freedom, but to affectionately strip away our slavery to lesser things so that we might become truly free!” (http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tullian/2010/11/26/counterfeit-gospels-2/)

Hope for the world: Renewed Commitment to the visible Church:

Church ... by asmundurGod has given three institutions to humanity for the well-being of society: The family, the government and the Church. Considering the instability of marriage and family and the corruption of government, the great need of the hour is for the Church to be all God intends for her to be. One of the primary obstacles to this is the pervasive low view of the Church among professing believers in Christ. The following quotes should become marching orders for the Church if we hope to regain our God-intended role as salt and light in the world.

“….it is scandalous that so many believers today have such a low view of the church. They see their Christian lives as a solitary exercise Jesus and me or they treat the church as a building or a social center. That the church is held in such low esteem reflects no only the depths of our biblical ignorance, but the alarming extent to which we have succumbed to the obsessive individualism of modern culture.”

“…for any Christian who has a choice in the matter, failure to cleave to a particular church is failure to obey Christ. For it is only through a confessing, local body of believers that we carry out the work of the church in the world.” (pp.276-277, The body, Chuck Colson)

“It is the loss of the new testament understanding of the comprehensive character of the church in both its spiritual essence and visible manifestations that is at the heart of modern-day confusion. We need to see this character clearly and appreciate its interrelationship if we hope to recapture God’s vision for His people” (p.68, Ibid). “It is hard to imagine, therefore, a more urgent or critical task than the recovery and restoration of the biblical view of the church” (p.32, Ibid).

We need to reaffirm the biblical vision of what God intends for the corporate life and witness of the visible Church! “Evangelicals need to affirm aggressively the necessary connection between faith in Christ and commitment to his church. So called solitary or independent Christians need to be incorporated into the life and discipline of some congregation…A growing number of evangelicals are unwilling to commit themselves to any particular congregation. Operating a sovereign ecclesiastical consumers, they hop from church to church looking for the best spiritual “deal” in town.” (p.38, CT, Robert Patterson)

“From the beginning it was clearly God’s plan that the Body would be made manifest to the world by gathering into confessing communities to fulfill His mission– that is, to administer the sacraments, preach the word, and make disciples. Thus, immediately after Pentecost, He established the pattern: Individual believers were to gather into particular communities.” (p.68, The Body, Chuck Colson)

“…membership in a confessing body is fundamental to the faithful Christian life. Failure to do so defies the explicit warning not to forsake “our assembling together” (pp.69-70, Ibid). “When someone is converted and thereby comes into the church universal, the first step of discipleship is membership in the church particular. It is the duty of those who are involved with new coverts to guide them not just into a bible study or fellowship group but into a local church where the word is taught and sacraments administered” (p.71, Ibid).

Steve Cornell