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01 September 2007

Closing the back door

Closing the back door

Are we doing everything we can to keep people from quietly leaving our congregations? Steve King reports...

It's not unusual to hear church leaders speak of new converts or members. It is rare to hear them acknowledge that relatively recent converts and long-standing members are leaving at twice the rate. But the funny sort of good news to be told is that the UK Church is shrinking, but not so quickly as once it was. That was the "encouraging" finding of the 2005 English Church Census.

Of course the picture is mixed - some churches and denominations are heading in the wrong direction quickly while others are seeing steady if not spectacular growth. Many are running hard to stand still.

One way to improve the overall situation is for those congregations that are seeing new people enter through the front door to more firmly close the back door. Even our most successful evangelistic churches are perhaps doing much less than they might to understand and tackle the problem of people leaving.

So who is leaving our energetic, Biblebelieving churches and why?

University students. There is much excellent work being done in Christian Unions, and local churches near universities are also welcoming to students. However, many students lose meaningful contact with home churches that are generally poor at keeping in touch with their young people when they head off on a gap year or to university.

It is rare for church leaders to visit students, and little is on offer for them when home during vacations. Perhaps the student's home church considers the student to have moved on when they become involved in the Christian union. But Christian unions are social contexts, transient in feel and light on commitment. After graduation and another move, many young Christians don't find regular fellowship, and nobody really notices.

New Christians with big problems. It is heartening to see how many congregations generously welcome those who have no church background and no clue about churchy etiquette. An Alpha course can be an ideal environment for this. However, in our keenness, we tend to miscommunicate, emphasising the soul and implying that if the Gospel is embraced, sins confessed and Christ received, everything will turn out fine. Including that gambling addiction, sexual disease, criminal record, domestic situation or personality disorder.

The Church is less competent at delivering ongoing pastoral care and integrating these new converts into the body. We are also unaware of how disillusionment can kick in quickly after the initial euphoria, when historic challenges stubbornly persist. Many of these Christians slip out of the back door a year later, never to return.

"Church leaders would do well to re-think how their congregation is pastored"

Established Christians who deviate. Despite much scholarly debate, topical discussion and a plethora of conference workshops, Christians who struggle with their sexual orientation, conceive outside marriage, become divorced or remain single beyond their 30th year just don't feel as though they comfortably fit. They generally perceive themselves to be inconveniently different or too harshly judged. Some find the back door, and sometimes the congregation is relieved.

Christians who think too much. Most leaders work hard to create church life without ripples. Most evangelical church members are only too happy to be taught what to think and how to behave. Difficulties arise when a member, especially a long-standing one, isn't entirely satisfied with being taught how the crowd is expected to behave. If doubts are expressed, leaders tend to assume that the ripple-maker is backsliding or undermining authority. In that context, the doubt or critique is not attended to, and the member feels pushed to the fringe. The thinking, questioning Christian finds the back door reluctantly, but once through it discovers that life can be a lot easier without church, and that faith doesn't necessarily vanish.

Christians who miss their shepherd. Understandably, as church attendance has diminished, leaders have sought new models and methods. A number of aspirational tactics have floated east across the Atlantic, so leaders hope and believe that their fellowship of 175 believers will, in a relatively short span of time, become a thousand strong or more. Leading a church through explosive growth requires time for strategy and management, so leaders spend more time at growth conferences, raising funds and tracking down that perfect warehouse. Pastoral care is of necessity devolved to small group leaders. Typically, the congregation grows very little and those who have theological training and pastoral gifts are less available to the fellowship. Not every small group leader feels sufficiently equipped to probe, nurture and admonish. Some shepherd-less Christians leave for a congregation where the pastor spends his or her time pastoring.

The busy Christian. Most evangelical churches have a grid of involvement that members are expected to bend their lives to fit. Undoubtedly, this is tempered by the understanding that marriages, children, ageing parents and employers need also to be accommodated. Still, evangelical churches are most comfortable with full-on engagement, so downscaling involvement can whiff of nominalism. And in the worst contexts, a cult-like atmosphere can exist where leaders expect members to make involvement their whole reason for living. Some Christians just can't or won't put themselves under such pressure.

And there are others: those who are fed up with the petty politics, leaders who have eventually burned out or are battered into submission, and Christians who simply change their mind about their faith.

On the other hand

"Even our most successful evangelistic churches are doing less than they might to tackle the problem of people leaving"

There are of course reasons to be positive. Overall the Church is shrinking more slowly. Some congregations are growing gradually. Some city churches are mushrooming.

If we look to business and commerce we learn that it takes far less effort to keep a current customer than to find a new one. So building loyalty is vital.

It would surely be common sense and good practice for congregations to do what they can to close that back door, especially if, at the same time, the front door is somewhere between ajar and flung wide open. The Church in the UK would be shrinking hardly at all and perhaps could grow once more. Church leaders would do well to re-think how their congregation is pastored. Perhaps the following suggestions might get the ball rolling:

More generous attitudes. Many congregations today are far more welcoming to the thoroughly un-churched, accommodating those who a generation ago would not have dared to cross the threshold. However, without diluting biblical principles, the Church could perhaps soften its heart to Christians whose situations are not conventional, and offer the kind of structured care that is desperately needed.

A greater willingness to receive feedback. Leaders are far better at listening to those who enthusiastically share their vision than to those who have well-intended but awkward questions and observations. Those belonging to the awkward mob are often very committed types who deeply care and have much to say that is worth hearing. If leaders could drop their guard, listen and validate, much good might follow.

More flexible models. The emerging church movement has opened a challenging debate about how Christians express their faith together. Most conventionally conceived churches are realising that they must engage in this discussion, reconsidering their format and programmes, as well as the expectations they harbour for their members.

Do what it says on the pastoral tin. There is something earthy, real and effective in oneon- one pastoral care. Congregational life, small groups and Bible weeks have their place, but nothing beats one Christian coming alongside another to help them feel noticed, discipled and loved.

Steve KingAs the Church in the UK grapples with these challenges and explores new concepts, there's a growing appetite to rediscover and redefine pastoral care. Ron Kallmier, head of CWR's Pastoral Care Training Programme, is quick to point to the large number of leaders attending training days: "Although not the only crucial issue, leaders are only too aware that historic pastoral care values and skills are being lost and, to complicate the pastoral landscape, a very changed world cries out to be loved."

Steve King is a freelance journalist and local church leader.

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