A pastor I knew years ago used to often tell a story about one particular family in his congregation. This family came from a different worship tradition and found it difficult to adjust to the culture of the church this pastor led. One day, the husband called and informed the pastor that they were leaving.
The pastor was heading out for vacation, and he would be out of touch with everyone at the church for two weeks. Hastily he arranged a meeting with the family in the parking lot of a grocery store. With his own family waiting in the family vehicle, he met with this father and implored them to stay in the congregation.
The family chose to remain. The pastor told this story for several years as an example of passion and commitment. Ultimately, the family left anyway and their departure was not as pleasant as it would have been if they had been allowed to leave years before.
Why tell this story? It is not as an indictment on this pastor. He was doing what he was taught to do, namely, to hold onto people. He believed he was honoring God, and I believe that his intentions were not in any way motivated by sin, pride or greed in his heart.
In fact, it is more than likely that you could tell a similar story from either your own ministry or the ministry of someone you know. It is how we deal with departing people. We pursue them – believing that they would only leave if we had done something wrong (guilt) or they were in sin (judging). I have become convinced that neither is necessarily true, although I admit there is a fair amount of both in the church today.
I want you to consider an alternate way of thinking.
Learn to Let Go of the Under-churched
I have done my own fair share of trying to keep people happy and “in” the congregation I lead. Sometimes, it is because they have been there for so long. Sometimes it is because I personally wanted them to stay because of relationships or simply a desire to hold on. Living open-handed means giving up on what you want and learn to understand the church is bigger than just the congregation you lead.
As we journeyed into the merger process, we had one family that was increasingly out of place in our joined congregation. It was no fault of their own. There was nothing going wrong. As new people came, and as ministries changed and flexed, they struggled to feel as if they belonged. Despite the elders’ efforts to put them at ease, it became obvious that they would move on.
We made some moves in a key aspect of our ministry, and it involved a member of the family. They did not take it well. To their credit, they tried to understand. We wanted to help them understand that it was for the better – for their good as well as our own. Ultimately, however, they drifted away.
When I sit at my desk on Monday mornings, I often go over our attendance list and pray for the people who call Bedford Road their home congregation. When my eyes fall on their names, my heart breaks.
I desperately want them to still be a part of Bedford Road. They have more blood in the woodwork than most of us. They stuck with the congregation when it was failing. They have done things they did not know how to do, with no praise from anyone. Part of me says, “Go do whatever it takes to get them back!”
It is part of me that says that. Jesus has other plans for them. He wants to bless another congregation with them. He wants to give another family the blessing of their friendship.
In reality, our closed-handed approach to people is nothing more than selfishness writ larger than our own person. We don’t like to think of it that way – I certainly don’t – but selfishness is exactly what it is. We are holding onto what only Christ has the right to hold onto, and he chooses to move them, who are we to oppose his will?
This is a case of people being under-churched.
If you have never heard this term before, it is because I think my friend Darin invented it one day in a burst of creativity. He realized that the way God has molded the congregation he leads will not minister to everyone. He wants it to, but it can’t. No congregation can minister to everyone as they want to be ministered to.
And when we recognize that, we need to be willing to let people go. They are not ours to hold. God guided them to our particular corner of the global heritage and movement that is the church, and for a time – hours or decades – it was where He wanted them. Who are we to challenge Him?
Open sin? Yeah, deal with it.
Mistakes you or your leaders made? Yeah, man up and take the responsibility on your shoulders.
Just under-churched? Just feeling out of place? Be open-handed and let them go.
This advice might sound counterintuitive, but it will revolutionize how you think about your ministry and its place in the greater Church. It will help with a lot of sleepless nights and frustrations.
When you’re embracing the past, make sure your hands are open. Don’t be in a hurry to throw things away. Listen to the stories, but prepare for the inevitable frustrations, confusions, bared sins and departures. Accept them as part of the process or you will tear yourself apart with guilt that is not yours.
It is Christ’s church. Your congregation is a part of it, but not all of it. Open your hands. If you’re clinging tightly to someone or something that needs to go, you will lose the opportunity to catch what God might be sending you.