Leaving The Church? It Must Be The Pastor’s Fault.
People are leaving the church in droves, and most fingers are pointed at the senior pastor.
Triggered. That’s the best way to describe a lot of people when the topic of “going to church” is brought up. You see, there’s a group of ex-church goers who are so angered by their previous church experiences, that any suggestion of support of the local church triggers them. I’ve had interactions with many people who tense up the moment I start a discussion about the church and the importance of being rightly aligned and connected with leadership.
Let me be clear: I’m a fierce advocate of the local church. I’m also a passionate visionary. I see well beyond the current structure and I regularly rock the boat and challenge systems, motives and traditions that exist within the local church. I believe we should stay connected, submitted and tender hearted within the church while we are, with wisdom and honor, advocating for reformation.
Sadly, many who share my passion for revolution within the church have gone the route of abdication, accusation and hibernation. They have abandoned their post while pointing fingers at pastors and leaders who didn’t measure up to their standards. They end up spiritualizing their decision to stop going to church so they can, as they say, “be the church.” The problem? You can’t be the church if you don’t go to church. I dealt with that in my article: You are NOT the church : The scattering movement.
I also address the abandonment of the church in my book Covens in the Church. People are leaving assignments and putting the church at great risk. It’s a movement of witchcraft and rebellion in the name of God.
A key reason why people are so disenchanted with the church is simple: Their expectations of what pastors are supposed to do and how the church is supposed to function are wrong.
MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT THE ROLE OF PASTOR AND THE CHURCH
THE PASTOR IS SUPPOSED TO BE MY CLOSE, PERSONAL FRIEND
There are many disappointed people who expected the pastor of the church they once attended to become a close, personal friend. While it’s true that pastors will have friends, and it’s possible to be counted among them, that should not be the goal or the expectation.
In fact, it’s a bit ludicrous to presume the pastor has to squeeze time, emotional energy and attention to you into his very busy and important life. The pastor’s role is not to be your close, personal bud. It’s to be a faithful leader and to watch out for your soul.
Stop and think about this for a moment. Do you have unlimited time and energy to give to literally everyone who chooses you as their new friend? How would you do it? Would you go out to lunch with them every day? What about hundreds of others who have the same demands? It simply doesn’t make sense.
We need to honestly understand just why pastors may choose not to be our close, personal friend. Here are a few:
His mandate is mostly to pray and study the Word.
1 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” Acts 6:1-4 (ESV)
It’s concerning today that pastors, instead of spending loads of time on their knees and in the Word, are being pulled in every direction to visit people in the hospital, meet with visitors to the church, answer the phone at all hours of the night and meet the needs of everybody in the congregation.
One of my favorite stories about Mike Bickle of the International House of Prayer in Kansas City brings clarity to this point. A person of great influence was flying through Kansas City and wanted to meet with Mike during his layover. Mike was unavailable. The layover was during Mike’s daily scheduled prayer time. He politely declined the meeting.
We need a new breed of leader that will install a team who will take care of the people and then focus on meeting with God, getting wrecked in his presence, gaining powerful revelation in the Word and, as a result, stand behind the pulpit with fire in their eyes and a tremble in their spirit.
He may not have sufficient time or emotional energy to invest in another close relationship.
Related to the point above, pastors are busy. Really busy. Even those who lead small churches can’t be expected to be best friends with everybody. I’ve heard people say that if they can’t be close friends with all, they should resign from ministry. Ridiculous.
Further, do you know how many ministry families are being torn apart because of the pastor having absolutely unreal, unnecessary demands placed on them? Burnout is real. Pastor’s kids are often neglected. Pastor’s wives often live with great resentment against the church and those who are crushing her husband under the weight of their demands.
This study by Robin Dunbar is revealing:
Is there a limit to how many people you can actually be friends with at a time?
According to psychologists, the answer is yes. A study by Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at University of Oxford, shows the average person can only manage five close relationships at a time.
So, if your church has more than five people attending, chances are the pastor simply won’t have room for another close friend.
He may not like you.
This one may sting. I’m confident you don’t have a blast hanging out with everybody. You have your favorites. So do pastors. It’s natural. It’s normal. Your personalities might not match. You might be clingy, weird, co-dependent, high maintenance or unbalanced. He'll be most effective ministering to you from afar.
This doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you. It doesn’t mean you can’t be friend at a less intimate level. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about you. He just isn’t going to take you on vacation or hang out in his PJ’s watching football with you.
You have yet to prove yourself or invest in the ministry.
Smart leaders will invest mostly in those who have proven themselves faithful. Jesus devoted himself to twelve, and then at a closer level to three. Pastors will hang with those who share his vision, who are fierce defenders of the church and who don’t exhibit selfish tendencies. The pastor has a serious call of God to lead the church into an impossible vision, and he needs people around him who will empower that vision.
If you are dead weight, they will love you, pray for you and do their best to awaken you, but they won’t—and shouldn’t—be close friends with you.
God told him not to get too close to you.
There have been a number of people over the last two plus decades of ministry that I was specifically warned about. God told me not to befriend them. Some had devious intentions. Others would be a time-suck. Others would want to be inappropriately close to my family and me. Healthy boundaries were necessary.
Sometimes, my wife would be the one to wave the red flag of warning about an individual. It’s always wise to listen to a discerning spouse! And, often, God didn’t tell me exactly why I should keep my distance. I simply had to obey.
Other reasons God may keep you from a close personal relationship with your pastor abound. God may want you in a desert season. He may want you to pass the test of rejection. He may want you more focused on God than man. The list goes on and on.
You would be better served connecting with others in the church.
While a pastor’s charisma and maturity may be appealing, they may not be the best fit for friendship. It would be best to honor their role in your life as teacher, intercessor and leader while enjoying deep relationships with a few others in the church. The fit would simply be much better.
You wouldn't be able to handle his strong leadership in a close relationship.
Good leaders will slice and dice you in love, challenge you to the extremity of your limits and rebuke you, again in love, for deficiencies that remain unaddressed. Most people can’t handle such a direct approach. Their skin isn’t thick enough.
A well known, influential senior pastor of a huge mega-church met with my wife and me in his office one day. I had ministered with him in prayer events and, while we were not close friends by any means, we were friends. He had access to my life. At this particular meeting, he reached into my soul, pulled it out and threw it against the wall. He challenged me. He was very direct and the meeting was extremely upsetting. My wife cried on the way home—and several times thereafter. We were rocked, but we took his counsel to heart, though I didn’t know if I agreed with everything, and I felt he was quite harsh about simple philosophical differences. I was troubled.
The next week we had another scheduled meeting. We were anxious to see him again in hopes of asking some questions and gaining clarity. We were also a bit uptight as we didn’t know what else he may challenge us with.
To our surprise he looked me in my eye and simply said, “You passed the test.” Then he hugged me.
He went on to explain that he was intentionally pushing me to my limit, challenging things he knew I held dear in ministry and wanted to see how I’d respond. He said other pastors and leaders have stomped out of his office in pride and indignation after similar confrontations.
Though I admittedly was angry after the first meeting, I also understand that’s the culture within structures led by leaders with strong personalities and cutting-edge leadership abilities. They don't play around.
He is mostly focused on connecting with his leaders, who, in turn, train others to connect with the body.
Pastors should be spending most of their time and energy on a small number of leaders, not the entire body. Those leaders will then multiply what they received into others.
Do you think Moses could be best buds with every one of the millions who left Egypt? That’s ridiculous. It’s also unnecessary. There’s a better way to ensure people in the church are connected.
18 You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone. 19 Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you! You shall represent the people before God and bring their cases to God, 20 and you shall warn them about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do. 21 Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. 22 And let them judge the people at all times. Every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. 23 If you do this, God will direct you, you will be able to endure, and all this people also will go to their place in peace.” Exodus 18:18-23 (ESV)
THE CHURCH IS SUPPOSED TO MOSTLY FOCUS ON MEETING MY NEEDS
This possibly may be the most destructive belief about the local church.
People who are disenchanted about the church are usually upset that their needs haven’t been met. In fact, for many it’s a strange thing to hear that the church isn’t mostly there for them. Instead, they are to be there for the church.
Churches should not be started in the hopes of drawing in people and simply ministering to them. But, this is the extent of the vision of many church planters and pastors. Churches should be started when there’s a powerful, God-given vision for advance. For example, if God speaks to a man about transformation and revival in a certain city, it might make sense to start a church and gather the laborers. Those laborers will be trained for the sake of running the specific race God has given that church.
Yes, churches should absolutely reach out to widows and orphans. They should be centers of healing. When there are needs, the church should do what it can to help (though, it can’t always help in every way at all times). That being said, those who have been trained, healed and equipped should understand the church needs them as laborers, as intercessors, as financial givers and as champions of the vision.
Most of the spiritual needs we have don’t require the involvement of the pastor. We can easily grow in the Word on our own. We can seek out deliverance through others. We can learn to lean more on God than man.
If our churches were strong militaries where everyone signed up to give to the mission instead of making demands, the world would be turned upside down.
RELATIONSHIPS ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT THING
If there one thing that troubles me, it’s when people gather together in the church to meet with friends and then lose passion when they are called to invest in the vision. I’ve seen this happen many times. People who want to connect relationally will stay involved until that well runs dry. Then, the pastor and leadership are accused of not having a loving church or facilitating friendships. While relationships are important, they aren’t the goal. The pastor’s job isn’t to develop a friendship club. The mission of intercession and Kingdom advance should be their focus.
I heard a story, again about IHOPKC, that speaks to this. Long ago, they instituted small groups. They started to flourish as people focused on developing relationships and satisfying that desire to make friends. That’s good. However, the primary, foundational purpose of IHOPKC was compromised. The main reason the ministry was founded was to gather people to pray and worship night and day. The prayer room started to empty as the small groups grew. They put an end to the small groups. It wasn’t until years later that they reinstituted them using a different model, one that ensured the small groups empowered the prayer room instead of threatening it.
This is one reason many churches today focus on small groups, visitor assimilation, pot lucks and connecting events—as the call to prayer goes silent. That’s what will fill the church, and kill the very reason we are to gather in the first place. To pray. Prayer is to be the main thing in every church.
17 And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” Mark 11:17 (ESV)
WE SHOULD ALL BE ALLOWED TO MINISTER DURING THE SERVICE
26 What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. 1 Corinthians 14:26 (ESV)
This is the famous verse many disgruntled people use when they share their frustrations about the church. They want to minister in the service and they don’t like just sitting there and listening to one person teach. They attempt to spiritualize their irritation.
This argument is often a manifestation of a spirit of rejection. Their ministry has not been given a place and they took offense. As one who has led churches for years I don’t apologize for disallowing certain people from ministering in the service. My role is to protect the sheep. If someone desires to minister, but it’s from a wounded heart, it can do great damage. But, let’s leave that alone for a moment and deal with the crux of the matter.
Shortly after Pentecost, the early church had, as some estimate, over 10,000 Christians. There would be, of course, no way for all of them to teach a lesson or deliver a message in tongues, and then wait for an interpretation. It’s impossible.
The reality is there were two complimentary expressions of the church, the large group meeting and the small group meeting.
In the small group meeting, spiritual gifts could be exercised. A variety of people could share a message. Various songs could be sung. However, this is not the only expression of the church. In fact, I’d argue the large meeting just might be the most important. This is where God’s ordained leader would gather the people and bring mature, focused instruction. In fact, the Ekklesia best defines the large group meeting. It’s a secular term that indicates a governmental gathering where leadership gives instructions to the people.
Paul did this. Peter did this. God reveals key information to pastors and leaders regarding the mission of the church, the culture, the hour and the resistance of the enemy. The pastor must then have the attention of the people so they can rightly respond.
WE AREN’T SUPPOSED TO BE SPECTATORS
Let’s deal with this two ways. First, I believe at times we absolutely are to be spectators, meaning, we sit at attention and listen carefully to the teaching. We can’t diminish the value of this, as I revealed in the previous point. Second, it’s true that we all have a role to play. The pastor has no obligation to allow us to minister any way we choose. When I was a youth pastor in a large church in Texas, the pastor assigned some ministry assignments to me that I despised. My ministry was to clean all of the bathrooms between services and to spend 8 hours every Friday in the scorching heat mowing their massive lawn. Oh yeah, I got to do some youth pastor stuff too.
I guarantee, those who are truly serious about not wanting to be spectators will have many opportunities to serve in the church! In fact, I bet if you ask your pastor where you can serve he’ll give you at least two or three options.
WE CAN WORSHIP AND GROW IN THE WORD ALONE OR IN SMALL GROUPS
Yes, we absolutely can grow alone. In fact, we should grow alone and in small groups. As I explained above, the small group expression of the church is valuable. Additionally, we should all be students of the Word and in prayer all by ourselves. Our prayer closets can’t hold more than just one of us.
However, don’t forget, the purpose of the church isn’t primarily to meet our personal needs, be they spiritual or natural. It’s great that you can grow better on your own than by sitting in the pew on a Sunday morning. That’s exactly what’s supposed to happen. But, remember, the purpose of the church is to be a house of prayer for all nations. You are needed as a soldier to show up for duty. You are needed on the wall. The church isn’t there to load you up with Bible knowledge or to act as a bridge between you and intimacy with God. You can do that on your own. The church needs you to meet it’s needs.
THE CHURCH ISN’T A BUILDING
Somebody needs to shout this loud and clear: Stop saying the church isn’t a building!
This argument is most often a passive aggressive attempt to devalue the Sunday local church gathering. People say this to validate their decision to disengage from the local church and to just “be the church.” Yeah, no. That doesn’t work.
As far as I can tell, people who leave “the building” to meet in homes are still meeting in buildings. Homes are buildings. Further, buildings are really great when it’s snowing or raining outside. I’m a big fan of buildings.
They may also argue that they don’t want to invest money in the maintenance of a building when they can simply meet in homes instead. This argument doesn’t work either. As I shared above, there must be two expressions of the church. The large group gathering is important. What happens if the church grows beyond 50 or 100 people? Some would say to multiply out and start new home groups.
This might work at times, but very often it doesn’t. We forget that God will specifically call a man or woman to lead a work. It’s important that we have the opportunity to sit under that person’s leadership, and that will most usually require a large venue.
When I was a part of IHOPKC, it was important for me to be in services with the entire community to hear Mike Bickle teach, share vision and give direction. It was invaluable. It required a large auditorium to do that.
WE ARE ALL EQUAL AND PASTORS SHOULDN’T BE ELEVATED ABOVE US
Nonsense. God absolutely favors people differently and he calls people differently. Some are able to teach, and some aren’t. Some have the gift of leadership and others don’t. We all play a part, but every single part is different.
Throughout Scripture, God called specific people to give leadership over others. Moses, Joshua, Paul and many others were put into leadership roles. Their function was not the same as others. Their maturity was not the same. Their gifting was not the same. Their anointing was not the same. None of that was equal.
Of course, God is no respecter of persons when it comes to his love, his passion for their lives and the fact that he died for them. But, you’d have to be biblically blind to say he favors and positions everybody equally.
We must understand there is rank and order in God’s government. God has generals, captains, privates, and, sadly, a bunch of people who have gone AWOL because they don’t affirm this leadership in their lives.
Give double honor to spiritual leaders[a] who handle their duties well. This is especially true if they work hard at teaching God’s word. 1 Tim 5:17
I’d encourage you to recalibrate your expectations of the church and of pastors with Scripture. God hasn’t called us into rebellion against his precious church. We need the large and small group gatherings. God’s leaders must spend their time in prayer and the Word. The church isn’t mostly about feeding you, it’s about equipping you as a soldier in a war. When we all get unified in prayer and mission, the church becomes both a beautiful bride and a potent weapon in the hands of God.