Surely one of the greatest frustrations of pastoring a church in our generation is that we live in the day of the roving church member.
When two Christian acquaintances meet on the street, after not having seen each other for a few months, the conversation often goes like this: “How are you? How’s your family? Where are you going to church now?” People are almost expected to switch places of worship every year or so.
Instead of becoming committed members, many are instead connoisseurs of churches. They taste one and another, becoming more acutely critical of any and all churches as time goes by. Often such roving Christians develop an attitude of spiritual superiority, sitting in judgment over the churches they visit and seeing themselves as somewhat above any of them.
Such shiftless souls are of little use to the kingdom of God. They vote for a building project, then walk away without paying for it. They demand programs, but can’t be counted on to implement them. They know exactly what the church should be like, but no such church exists. They shop for a place to worship much as they do a place to buy groceries – following the specials of the week or their own whims.
When I started pastoring, in the 1960s, things were very different. Most Christians seemed to be committed to a home church. They would rather fight than switch. Some of them did fight – literally. But even as they feuded and fussed they stayed true to their church. They might run the preacher off, but nobody was going to budge them.
That system had its drawbacks but such dogged commitment could be healthy. Sometimes it forced people to face up to their own problems.
We pastors have not necessarily caused the problem of the roving member, but all too often we have encouraged it by our spirit of competition. Perhaps we could remedy the situation by being more careful in the matter of transferring members.
Most churches still follow the practice of sending a letter of transfer when a parishioner moves from one local congregation to another. However, it is often an after-the-fact formality for the purpose of record keeping, rather than an actual recommendation.
The tradition dates back to the first century. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome, “I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea, that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and assist her in whatever business she has need of you; for indeed she has been a helper of many and of myself also.”
But what if the person who is doing the church-hopping is not such a worthy saint? In all the 35 years I have been a pastor I do not recall ever having received a letter stating that the member coming my was is a self-serving, power-hungry, hypocritical trouble-maker. I’ve always had to discover those characteristics the hard way.
A man who once joined my congregation came to us from another church where he said he was rejected because he was filled with the Holy Spirit. It didn’t take me long to discover that this man’s spirit was something other than holy. He caused untold heartache before he finally moved on.
To my knowledge that man belonged to no less than eight different churches during the next six years after he left us. He was a contentious and divisive factor in all of them. Fortunately for the church, the last I heard of him he has not attended church regularly anywhere for many years now. The man says that none of the churches in his city meet his standards.
The apostle Paul also encountered such men. He did non just send them on down the line to another assembly with the attitude of “sheep stealer beware.” He wrote of a fellow churchman, “Alexander the coppersmith did me much harm. May the Lord repay him according to his works. You also must beware of him, for he has greatly resisted our words.”
What would happen if every pastor in a city would covenant together that one would not receive a member from another without such an honest recommendation? We could save ourselves a lot of grief.