Tim shared one account that both struck and has stuck with me. He told the story of a pastor/evangelist in a persecuting nation who preached the gospel to a multitude of people. Before inviting them to respond to the gospel, he boldly and frankly proclaimed the cost of doing so. If they repented of their sins and accepted Christ as their Lord and Saviour, as professed through baptism and church membership, they should expect one or more of the following consequences.
First, they should expect to lose their employment. Second, their children would have no hope of acquiring an education, which would pretty much guarantee the perpetuation of a cycle of poverty. Third, they might well be arrested and imprisoned.
As the crowd considered this frank assessment of their future, nine hundred people professed faith in Christ, were baptised, and joined the church. They counted the cost and considered the loss of all things but “rubbish” in comparison to having their sins forgiven and knowing Christ (Philippians 3:8).
At the same conference, Ken Mbugua from Emmanuel Baptist Church in Nairobi shared about the plethora of churches in his country. Because of shallow Christianity, he said that his church seeks to keep the door to membership very narrow. Some would criticise this. I wouldn’t. And neither would anyone who has experienced the ease with which “Christians” often float from church to church in non-persecuted lands like our own.
In my thirty years of pastoral ministry I have been often grieved by professing Christians who move from church to church, not realising that, in most cases, they are running away from Christ. In many cases, after joining a new church, they eventually run into Jesus there. What then? In some cases, they pack their proverbial bags and run again.
Of course, no one ever admits they are running away from Christ and the demands of his lordship. That would be, well, too painfully (and frightfully) honest. Instead, they offer an array of reasons: “My needs are not being met.” “My problem is not being fixed.” “The church is not loving enough.” “The teaching does not grab me.” “I’m not happy with decisions by the leadership.” “There are too many cliques in the church.” “The church is not doing enough outreach.” “No one greets me.” While a church should not shrug off such critiques (after all, there may be some truth to them), we should also recognise that, in many cases, the real reason for one’s dissatisfaction is a problem with authority: the authority of Jesus Christ. The disgruntled member, rather than “submitting to one another in the fear of Christ” (Ephesians 5:21), runs away from Jesus’ command. How often I have been tempted to do this!
Jesus does not call us to a life of trouble-free living, even (especially?) within the church. Church life can be deeply painful, and yet rarely is the solution to run. And as much as I have myself been tempted to do this, I have also been rescued by the reminder that Jesus calls us to take up our cross and to persevere for the good of others (and for ourselves) to the glory of God. In other words, whatever struggles we face in our church, the Lord Jesus is at work—right here. I shouldn’t run. We shouldn’t run. We should stay and help each other in the race (Hebrews 12:1–2).
When tempted to leave, we should consider that perhaps God wants to use us as an agent of change for the health of our church. On the other hand, perhaps, just perhaps, he wants to change us. Perhaps God is using the local church to highlight sinful attitudes and/or sinful behaviour in our life. Perhaps he is using an imperfect church to reveal our need to grab tightly to Christ so that we might then take up our cross, die to ourrights, and then joyfully fulfil our responsibility. Perhaps the Lord is highlighting the imperfections of our church to move us toward becoming a benevolent contributing member rather than a belittling consumer.
Harry S. Truman, former American president quipped, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” That might be a good challenge to political leaders but, sadly, it is too often the response of many professing Christians. When the local church applies the biblical heat of accountability and responsibility, some members simply look for another ecclesiological kitchen in hopes that there they will find a more ‘chilled’ and palatable form of Christianity. When they join that church, all is marvellous. They can hardly believe how great things are. They have never heard such teaching. The members are so loving. The elders are wonderful shepherds who never disappoint. The church is so friendly. Their problems are being fixed. In short, the grass is so much greener. Until, that is, a leadership decision is made with which they do not agree. Until, one Sunday, they are not sufficiently greeted and welcomed. Until the preaching of the word cuts too close to the bone. Until they are confronted with their less-than-faithful participation in body life. Until they are confronted with their own sin. Until a church member does not reach out to them in need. Then “the Lord” begins to “lead” them to search for another church. All too often, the unhelpful cycle just begins all over.
What most do not realise when caught up in this self-centred church-hopping is that they are in fact running from Christ and his authority over them—authority which is given to the local church (Matthew 18:18–20).
Of course, there sometimes are valid reasons to leave a church: doctrinal heresy, unbiblical leadership, denial of the gospel; etc. But in far too many cases, leaving is less than noble. It is, in fact, ignoble. One way to guard against this is for the local church to consistently and courageously be clear about the cost of discipleship, the cost of following the Lord Jesus Christ. This is inseparable from the costly—covenantal—commitment of becoming a member of the local church. In other words, when a Christian joins a biblically faithful local church, he or she is to leave his or her agenda and cleave to Christ and to his people. Church members are to keep cleaving.
This is the rationale behind the local church having a thorough membership process. Local churches should work towards a church membership composed of those who truly believe the gospel and therefore are committed to growing in their commitment to take up their cross and follow Christ. That is easier said than done in a Christianised culture like ours. But it must be done. After all, among other dangers, the most serious is that someone becomes a member of the visible church, but they have not understood and believed the gospel. They will be in for a wrathfully rude awakening on the Day of Judgement. A gospel-faithful membership emphasis and process can be a means of encouraging unbelievers to run to Christ, and to find him.
But genuine Christians also face a danger: the danger of a me-centred approach to church life. This can lead to a tendency to run when discontentment arises. This is dangerous for their souls and for the church they join. We need to help one another to repent of our consumer mentality. Members of gospel-faithful local churches must run from the temptation to run and rather persevere in meaningful relationships with fellow members as we all run the Christ-focused race.
May God grace us so that we will not run away, and that we might help others to stop running away. May we run passionately, and corporately, to Christ Jesus, our Lord and Saviour.