Many Evangelicals were shocked to hear that one of their own, broadcaster Hank Hanegraff, host of The Bible Answer Man syndicated radio program, had joined the Orthodox Church. Hanegraff’s faith shift is another account of a former Evangelical moving to a different stream of the Church. When former Evangelical Theological Society president Francis Beckwith joined the Catholic Church, a round of discussion and debate followed similar to the conversation currently taking place about Hanegraff’s decision. Though data shows that Evangelical congregations tend to gain more members from Catholic and Mainline traditions than they lose to them, the reasons given by high-profile, deeply-invested leavers (and the many other less-famous folk who move from Evangelicalism to Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, and Mainline churches) should call Evangelicals to some rigorous self-examination. Most of the online reactions to these “leavers” tends to focus on points of doctrine. While those debates have value, I think they may serve as a distraction from a practical question every local church leader can consider in the context of his or her local church: How do you view people who may feel they are in some way “outgrowing” your congregation?
Frankly, I’ve met few leaders who believe that a person could outgrow their local church. If a person feels God is moving them toward a different stream within the kingdom, most leaders seem to struggle with the idea that the person is still “small o” orthodox in their faith.
When was the last time you heard a church leader explain the departure of a long-time member who’s chosen a different faith community in glowing terms? Imagine: “Ken and Julie have left our beloved Baptist church to join St. Peter’s Lutheran because they believe God has called them there, and frankly, we don’t have much to offer them beyond great preaching, and the opportunity to help out at Awanas every Wednesday night. They’ll be able to grow much deeper at St. Pete’s because they’re going to become Stephen Ministers at the church and use their gifts of encouragement and service in a much more meaningful way. We are praying they find rich growth and deeper connection with God in their new congregation just up the street. May God bless you, Ken and Julie. We love you and are grateful for the time we’ve had with you in this church.”
We Evangelicals have a 500-year history of dividing over all sorts of issues ranging from modes of baptism to the color of the carpets in our sanctuary – even (maybe even especially!) with our fellow Protestants. While there is a pastoral responsibility to inquire with love about a leaver’s spiritual health, what happens if you discover that the one moving to another faith tradition is doing so because their faith is growing, and that growth has shifted their faith out of your particular stream?
Most church leaders work very hard to keep the organizational plates spinning. They’re overseeing and encouraging participation in the programs of the church – programs created for the purpose of helping people grow. They’re writing sermons and leading services meant to point people at Jesus, the One who transforms lives. Though in theory they may have a kingdom mindset that says that their congregation isn’t the only church on the planet, the reality is that when a member leaves, it can hurt like the dickens. And it is far easier to demonize someone who crosses the Tiber as someone who has “fallen away” from the true faith than it is to (a) bless them and do all you can to maintain fellowship and (b) consider their reasons for leaving as a way to reflect on how you’re cultivating growth among your more mature members.
To release people who’ve “maxed out” at a church is to acknowledge a congregation’s limitations and weaknesses. It also means losing someone who would likely be a strong ministry leader, or at the least, a committed helper/servant. It is a lot easier for some to demonize the leavers by questioning their motives or (ironically) challenging their maturity. “If they were really mature, they’d be more willing to serve here instead of taking their toys and moving on to somewhere where they would get their ‘needs’ met.”
People do move on because they’ve outgrown a congregation’s practice or a steam’s doctrinal stance. If you’ve done so, how was your departure handled by church leaders? Congregational leaders, how do you navigate the challenge of losing a member to another stream of the church?
This post was originally published on Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog.