I’ve got five years of raw data on this subject because I’ve been pastoring for that many years now. Wait, I’ve got far more than five years worth of data. Scratch that. Let’s start over. I’ve been in Evangelical churches for the vast majority of my life and I’ve noticed an interesting trend. Wait. Maybe I should just frame this with a question:
Why do people arrive for worship either right on the dot (or a little after) and get up and leave immediately at the end (or just before)?
My question applies for lots of different types of people, including the “I’m just looking for the right church to join” to the “I’m a super mature Christian who loves Jesus and Scripture oh-so-much.” This question equally applies to those who are getting their toes wet and are testing the water of “religion.” Allow me to address these three types of people and push back on some of their thinking (and attitudes and actions).
Also, I realize that I’m overstating my case, here, to make a point. Perhaps some of you don’t even realize you are doing what you are doing since most of us often don’t realize we’re doing what we’re doing. Just read on and consider these ideas here. And please, please, puhlease do not assume I am talking about people who have an appointment or a family function after a church gathering once in awhile. I know things come up and I am encouraged when people make family a priority. But if you are constantly leaving and constantly avoiding the elusive activity of “fellowship,” you may want to consider these ideas more fully…
The “I’m just looking for the right church to join” crowd.
I don’t understand these people because if they are looking for the right church shouldn’t they get to actually know the church? Wait, maybe I’m still assuming that most people realize that the church isn’t a building, it’s the people. Hasn’t that idea become well attested in the majority of our churches? Maybe not. Perhaps that’s my error.
But even if someone believes that the church is the building and less about the people, wouldn’t it be obvious that it is more about the people by just watching everything that happens during a worship gathering? Isn’t “church” essentially about God and people and their relationship?
I mean, if you are really looking for the right church, perhaps you should actually interact with the people that make up that congregation and get to know them. Are they all a bunch of loonies? How do you know they actually believe the things that they are singing and saying? Can you really come to objective ideas about the church’s identity and values and theology without actually talking to the people?
I guess I just don’t get it. If you are actually looking for the right church, maybe you should take the time to get to know them, especially if you are interested in “joining.” As far as I’m concerned, I don’t think you should be allowed to join the church if they don’t know you and you don’t know them! Hmm. I’m really confused by this group, but not as confused as I am about our next group…
The “I’m a super mature Christian who loves Jesus and Scripture oh-so-much” crowd.
You people drive me crazy. What with your constant over-spiritualization of everything and your obvious disdain for everyone who is below you, it’s hard for me to love you and want you to actually do what I’m suggesting you do. There, I said it. It’s out. But allow me to flesh this out a bit.
First of all, I’m confused by how you can be so committed to the things that Jesus was committed to and the things that the Bible says Christians are supposed to be committed to, without actually being committed to the primary group receiving that commitment – the church. I’m confused. How can you be “devoted” to the gospel and to prayer and to fasting and to reading Scripture without being devoted to fellowship (Acts 2:42)? How are you able to read the “one another” passages of Scripture and essentially live out a “just me and Jesus” lifestyle?
Are you really able to “love one another with brotherly affection” and “outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:10) if you always leave before interacting with people? Are you really able to “live in harmony with one another” (Rom. 12:16) if you never enter into situations that could produce the direct opposite? Isn’t being absent taking the easy way out? How are you able to, “through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13) if you aren’t around to serve others? Isn’t it impossible to be “bearing with one another in love” if there is never a “one another” that includes you? Might it not be impossible to “encourage one another and build one another up” (1 Thess. 5:11) if you never interact with the people in the Body of Christ?
Let’s be clear here. I’m not judging your salvation. I am, however, suggesting that you might want to take a hard look at Scripture and evaluate whether your love for Jesus is really as deep and meaningful as you say it is. Jesus connected loving Him with caring for His sheep (John 21:16-17). 1 John is full of connections between loving God and loving our brothers and sisters in Christ.
So I don’t understand this group of self-assessed spiritually-mature Christians. I’ve watched them my whole life walk into church services a few minutes late with their super large study bibles only to see them stand up during the last song and bolt for the door.
Read this: you have stuff to offer people and I promise you that other people have stuff to offer you. When you get to heaven, it won’t just be you and Jesus. It’s going to be multitudes upon multitudes of people and Jesus. Maybe, if you change, you’ll find that you have some friends up there in heaven and some of them helped you grow to be more like Jesus and you helped them grow too.
But that won’t happen if you keep leaving before talking to other people.
P. S., it’s okay to get out of your chair and greet people too, especially you silly teenagers!
The “I’m just checking out religion” crowd.
This group is very similar to our first group, so my suggestions will be equally similar. If you are really checking things out, get to know the people who once were in your shoes. You might not agree with everything they say, but they once were ‘checking things out’ too. They once, more than likely, thought it was a bit weird to stare at a screen with words on it and sing out loud. I’ll even admit that upon reflection, that concept seems a bit weird to me too (I know, I know… God is listening and we’re singing to Him as we’re empowered by the Spirit, but you get my point).
So you’re getting your toes wet? That’s great. I’m glad you are testing things out. Far too many people are less than critical thinkers and buy into everything that they are told. I encourage you to continue… but with one caveat.
If you really want to test the water, you need to realize that the water is actually a huge swimming pool full of… *wait for it*… people. That’s right. God saves people from all different backgrounds and all different obstacles with all different kinds of baggage. You’ve got yours, we’ve got ours.
And that’s what makes Christianity so beautiful. We’re a bunch of different people being conformed into the greatest person to ever live: Jesus. And if we make up His Body, wouldn’t it make sense to get to know the “feet” and the “hands” and the “mouthes” and the “eyes” so that we can operate as that Body (cf. 1 Cor. 12)? I think so.
But even more so than that, you’ll find that getting to know actual people rather than statistics or stories about people will go much further at communicating to you what the water is actually like. I propose that if the people are cold and gloomy and depressing, the water is cold and gloomy and depressing. I know that analogy can be misunderstood, but when you are looking to check out a church community, you need to actually find out about the community!
I know I may have stepped on some of your toes. I apologize if I’ve been offensive. I just really want you to experience more and I want the people that are around you to experience more. You both need each other and it is frustrating and sad to see you both keep missing out on each other.
So please, don’t just leave. Make every effort to actually follow through on what Jesus says is so rewarding. Invite someone outside of your small circle of trust and get to see how beautiful God’s people are. Sometimes they drive us crazy, but Jesus died for them.
You might actually find you like them… and have something to offer them. And I’m sure that you might actually have a lot to learn from them… if you are willing and humble.
May the Lord help us…
What do you think? Any other theories out there?
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.