I recently spoke to some friends — we’ll call them Sean and Kate — who attended the same church for thirty years. During their tenure, they’d seen the congregation relocate several times. They’d watched the pastoral staff change and members come and go. They’d taught their children in Sunday school, watched them grow up, get married, and move away. Sean and Kate were loyal church members. They were supportive of their pastor, involved in the ministry, regular givers. But eventually, the unspeakable happened — they began to sense that God wanted them to move on.
This would be a very difficult feat for Sean and Kate.
It wasn’t because the couple was obstinate or inflexible. It wasn’t because they lived in Siberia and the next closest church was five hours away via dogsled. It wasn’ t because the couple had relatives in the church who demanded they stay. It wasn’t because the couple had plans to eventually seize the reins of the leadership.
It was because they believed in church loyalty.
For a long time, I too believed in church loyalty. Like Sean and Kate, I believed that sticking it out with a local body of believers was important, that working through problems was the Christian thing to do. I valued long-term commitments and believed that hop-scotching through churches for whatever reason was often an excuse and would never produce the type of character Christ desired.
Eugene Peterson, when asked what advice he would give to younger Christians who are looking for more authentic discipleship, said this in a recent interview:
Go to the nearest smallest church and commit yourself to being there for 6 months. If it doesn’t work out, find somewhere else. But don’t look for programs, don’t look for entertainment, and don’t look for a great preacher. A Christian congregation is not a glamorous place, not a romantic place. That’s what I always told people. If people were leaving my congregation to go to another place of work, I’d say, “The smallest church, the closest church, and stay there for 6 months.” Sometimes it doesn’t work. Some pastors are just incompetent. And some are flat out bad. So I don’t think that’s the answer to everything, but it’s a better place to start than going to the one with all the programs, the glitz, all that stuff.
I think Peterson is right that “the programs, the glitz” can tempt a congregant from the most essential of disciplines. That of staying. That of committing oneself to any concrete block of time. Sure, in the long-run, not every pastor or church will be a good fit. But unless we are resolute about a “long-run,” in giving certain churches a chance, we are potentially doomed to wandering.
But while being loyal to a specific pastor or church can be a good thing, it can also take on unhealthy proportions. Sean and Kate took their leaving seriously. They met with the pastor, reaffirmed their love for him and the body, but acknowledged that they felt God was calling them elsewhere. The pastor understood and, while he hated to see them go, blessed them on their new adventure.
Thus, Sean and Kate embarked on a journey that led them to multiple churches of extremely contrasting ministry styles. They gave themselves permission to sit back and appreciate the rich differences of God’s family. Being involved in the same church for thirty years was a testament to their personal stability and loyalty. They needn’t prove that again. However, it had also left them feeling insulated.
The family of God was quite big. Their loyalty to one church had kept them from enjoying that bigness.
Having been a loyal church member for over thirty years, having pastored for eleven of them, I can testify to the value of church loyalty. But like Sean and Kate, I’ve learned that there is a downside to such a commitment. Church loyalty, or loyalty to a specific pastor or ministry, can sometimes be a hindrance to actually following God. Staying can become an idol.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that I have a serious Pharisaical streak. Surprise. Part of that rears its head in this discussion. I dislike spiritual drifting. I believe the “Follow Christ / Quit Christianity” trend has produced a generation of spiritual transients. I believe the call to follow Christ is simultaneously a call to be in community with His other followers. An inability to settle down long-term in a church can be a sign of serious problems in a Christian’s life.
Loyalty to God and loyalty to a church are two different things.
Thankfully, there are still people like Sean and Kate, those who commit to a congregation through thick and thin. Those who weather storms of change and disagreement. Those who don’t require “the programs, the glitz” to continue showing up. Would to God that every church and every pastor has a Sean and Kate in their fold.
But following God can mean leaving a church as much as remaining in a church. When is church loyalty unhealthy? At the point when God wants you to leave, and you don’t. Or can’t.