Chris Justice is Senior Pastor at Beaconsfield Baptist Church
I have been a pastor for over 30 years – in different churches - and have met people in all three categories that this survey investigated; ie. unconnected, disconnected and reconnected. I would like to confine my comments to those who have disconnected and those who have reconnected. With regard to disconnection, I am not surprised at the causes stated for this. In my experience people have often disconnected themselves from the church because life pressures and commitments have conflicted with (a) Christian principles and/or (b) commitment to church activities. The actual details of these ‘disconnections’ are so wide and varied it’s hard to reach a conclusion as to what could prevent them and, when they have occurred, rectify matters.
Generally speaking, there is no doubt in my mind that the church has to present itself more as a family than an organisation if it wants to attract and hold people. It has to recognise that people are different, both in their abilities and their personalities, and not everyone fits the ‘boxes’ our churches sometimes assume. And, it seems to me, that it is because of this that some people either remain on what we perceive as the margins of the church, or they drift into that position because there is simply no place for them in the rigid structures we have built. If, for example, they cannot make it to the midweek home group because of some prior commitment in their work or social life, they will tend to remain on the edge of church life and nobody makes the effort to connect with them because they presume the individual doesn’t want to be included in church life. Our inflexibility as churches in this respect can unwittingly exclude people. They may not have intended remaining on the fringe of the church family, but they have simply been left there because Sunday morning worship and midweek evening home group are the only ways people tend to be included. And, in some cases, people are not permitted to be involved in other church activities – music or young people’s ministry, for example – if they don’t attend the midweek home group, because they are perceived as being ‘uncommitted’. Clearly, there is no straightforward answer to this, because we have to have some means of determining whether someone is ‘with’ us or, on the other hand, are content to come to church on Sunday and nothing more.
Having said this, and accepted that the church does have a responsibility to include people and draw them into its life, it has to be said that it is not responsible for all ‘disconnections’. In my experience, there are people who simply do not want to fit into the lifestyle and organisation of the church and decide to opt out. Some protest that the leaders do not ‘make room for them’ or do not make church more acceptable by changing its organisation or way of doing things to suit that individual. There has to be flexibility on both parts. And, of course, there will be theological, doctrinal or ecclesiological reasons for people leaving. In such cases, if those are the genuine reasons for leaving, one would hope that they would then find another church that they would find to be more compatible.
I personally have had to say ‘goodbye and God bless you’ to some individuals over the years when we have agreed that, whereas they would like our church to change its theological or ecclesiastical emphasis, the leaders, for good reasons, are not prepared to do so. For me, the most difficult situations are those who choose to leave and worship elsewhere without letting the leaders know about it. It can be weeks or months before this new situation comes to light and can lead to awkwardness when we meet in the street! In an attempt to prevent this, we do include a ‘how to leave us’ section in our church membership course! – but, unfortunately, it still doesn’t work in every case.
I think my general conclusion with respect to reconnection is that it is rare that a person will reconnect with his/her original church, unless the cause of the separation was a disagreement with one particular individual, and there has been some reconciliation. It is more likely that a ‘reconnector’ will find their way back into church life in a new situation where they don’t have embarrassment and awkwardness to overcome. The churches I have led have, of course, had the pleasure of receiving ‘reconnected’ people over the years. And this has been in a wide variety of circumstances. Sometimes people have been genuinely restored to a relationship with God and are looking for somewhere to pursue that. Others have been looking for a church that is more comfortable for them in terms of its form of worship or structure. Once someone has made it clear that they want to be part of the life of the church, every effort is made to discover why they left their former church and, if possible, to resolve any outstanding issues.
Over all, it seems to me that the best way to handle situations where someone is disconnecting or reconnecting is through personal contact. This may be the responsibility of the church leaders, but I genuinely believe that some of the first moves are best coming from members of the congregation. Genuine friendship and concern, shown by individuals within the body of Christ is a powerfully attractive aspect to church life, and is often the thing that brings people in and keeps them in.