By Father Andrew Harrison
Someone handed me an article entitled, The Main Reason People Leave a Church. This addition of the Evangelist is about why people joined St. Luke or converted to the Orthodox Church. I thought I would write about why people leave. The article, written by Thomas Rainer, is based on his and others research studies. He states that church members leave because of a sense of some need not being filled. “They have an idea of what a local congregation should provide for them and believe that these provisions have not been met”.
In the case for Orthodox Christians what would be the needs that St. Luke parish should provide? From a social standpoint we could say, a sense of community, i.e., people caring for one another. It could be friendships with people I agree with. It could be to possibly have a priest available on call at all times for emergencies or just available when needed, so he can do funerals, wedding and baptisms. What about a place to educate my children in Christian morality or to teach them about my inherited faith and/or my ethnic heritage. The church could be a place where teenagers can meet with acceptable friends or give opportunities to provide meaningful service such as a place to help the poor. It could provide a place of entertainment where I can practice my religious hobby or have a beautiful liturgy with a good sounding choir and an enlightening sermon from the priest. The church could possibly teach and practice the Orthodox Faith as I understand it.
There are legitimate claims made by former Orthodox Church members who left a parish church and joined another parish, converted to another denomination, or just decided that church was no longer an interest. Needs could be met in some other venue. The most prevalent claim is they do not understand the language and are not being taught about the Bible. But even when the language is understandable and the Bible is taught, I have heard statements like this; “I just don’t get anything out of it or the services are to long for my busy schedule. “ Your people are too “gung ho”.
According to the author of the article, people leave a church because they have a sense of entitlement. He says this is the main reason. “They have an entitlement mentality rather than a servant mentality”.
He gives these direct quotes as examples from his research.
• The worship leader refused to listen to me about the songs and music I wanted.
• The pastor did not feed me.
• No one from the church visited me.
• I was not about to support the building program they wanted.
• I was out two weeks and no one called me.
• They moved the times of the worship services and it messed up my schedule.
• I told my pastor to go visit my cousin and he never did.
He does not deny that church members should expect some level of ministry and concern but the church cannot be turned into a country club where you pay your dues and are entitled to certain benefits.
The biblical basis for Church membership can be found in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31. St. Paul uses the word members in relation to body parts. ‘For as the body is one and has many members but all the members of that one body being many are one body so also in Christ. Now you are the Body of Christ and members individually.” In these verses St. Paul describes church membership not by what is received but by the ministry given. “God has appointed these in the Church, first Apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations……..
In the article the author believes the way to close “the back door” of the church is to teach the members about what church membership means. He considers it a great challenge to the pastor to move parishioners from an entitlement mentality to understand and commit to servant mentality. He suggests that parishioners be informed about the biblical understanding of church membership by providing a members class for the entire congregation. In this class, clear requirements and expectations for membership would be given. New members would be mentored by two or three biblically oriented members and after a while they too would be asked to be mentors. A plan should be developed by the pastor to train members according to St. Paul teaching in Ephesians 4: 11-13. Finally people would be encouraged to be involved in small group ministries. It is in these groups new members meet people who understand and are committed to servant mentality.
In Ephesians 4, St. Paul explains spiritual gifts. He says that Christ gives grace to each one of us according his gift. In verse 11 he says that Christ “gave to some to be apostles, to be prophets, evangelists pastors and teachers, for equipping the saints (us) to the work of ministry”.
If we take to heart, Thomas Rainer’s suggestions about providing a class on the meaning of membership, what would be the structure of such a class? What would be taught?
Assuming that a new member has a relationship with Jesus Christ, some knowledge of the Orthodox faith, the first and basic requirement would be the study of the liturgy so there would no question about expectations to attend when possible every Sunday and receive Holy Communion. Church canons say three Sunday’s not attending, means you are no longer a member in good standing. The value of frequent confession through private confession or communal confession would be essential for study since private confession is required at least once a year to be even considered an Orthodox Christian. The four fasts of the church year, Great Lent, Advent, St. Peter and Paul and Dormition would be taught as necessary for spiritual development. Tithing would be studied as a spiritual sacrifice not as a burden but as a personal sign of freedom from greed. Each member would be taught to see the value of servant hood and encouraged to take on a ministry or to create one according to their spiritual gifts and calling. Continuing education through the School of the Seventy, Bible study and other ministries such as women reading and movie clubs would be seen as an opportunity for evangelistic knowledge of the faith. Helping the poor through PADS homeless program, visits to nursing homes, Garden Center for the mentally challenged would be suggested as necessary to fulfill Christ’s call to help the least of his brethren.
For all of the above you will be entitled to nothing. Church membership is a life changing gift given by God. “ Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you” These word of Christ to Apostle Peter ring true for us. Salvation is as a free gift given by our Lord Jesus Christ, by his “Life Creating death” by His self-sacrifice. He friended us, even more He made us his adopted children because of His love for us. This is servant mentality. It is doing what He expects us to do.