Every local church has members who decide for one reason or another to leave the fellowship. The reasons people have for leaving are varied. Some reasons are godly and prayerfully considered. Some are selfish and consumeristic. Some leave angrily and/or hurt. Others may be transferred to another city by their employer and therefore, change churches. Oh, and some leave because the church they attend is toxic, the preaching is not biblical, and compromises in doctrinal fidelity have occurred. There are more reasons, I'm sure, but you get the point.
In a community like mine, there are dozens of local church options. This has increased over the past twenty years as the community has grown, more schools have been built, and traffic patterns have changed.
Therefore, the inevitable has occurred. Our church may actually have more former church members/attenders in our community that current ones.
We have had people leave our church for every reason listed above (well, except the one about the abandonment of good doctrine on our part, at least from my perspective.) Since I have lived here for over twenty-six years, I run into many brothers and sisters who are in the "former member" category. These encounters take place in restaurants, grocery stores, school events, and elsewhere.
For those who didn't leave angrily or hurt, the meetings are cordial and very nice. Often there's a bit of catching up because I just don't see them as much and am not aware of the latest details in their lives.
However, there are times when the encounter is . . . interesting.
There are some who angrily left our fellowship. Some disagreed with my teaching or doctrine. To some I am too conservative. To others I am too liberal. One was angry I was not more political from the pulpit (He found a church that tends to wrap the cross in the flag, so he's happier now.) I know some who were just turned off by my personality (I really can't blame them.) Others felt I did not minister to them as a pastor should. They're probably right, to be honest.
So what do I do?
I smile. Ask how they're doing. Sometimes force them to shake my hand and wish them well. In most cases they're going to other churches and I'm comforted to know that.
A few weeks ago I saw a brother in the grocery store. I asked how he was doing. I hadn't seen him at church in a while, but I did not ask about his attendance. I was not setting him up. I was not intending to make it awkward. The encounter wasn't awkward from my perspective. I noticed he was nervous. Then, he said, "Well, my wife and I are now attending [such-and such church, a new church in our area]." He named the church. I smiled. I know the church. It's the latest good church to pop up. While I am certain he is attending there, he said the name of the church incorrectly. I knew which one he was talking about and really wanted to say "Well, if you're going to the church, you should know the name of the church," but I didn't. It didn't matter. He was apologetic in how he spoke, but I stated quickly "That's a great church. I'm so glad you're connected and involved. Stay there. Be a member. Stay committed." He smiled and I went to get my gallon of milk.
Awkward, but not bad.
Like most churches, we keep a membership roll as up-to-date as possible in order to know our members, where they live, track their attendance and service, and help understand next steps for discipleship.
Like many, we have names on the roll of people who never attend, haven't attended in years, and are likely members of other churches. We really need to deal with that.
I believe church membership is biblical and matters. I won't get into the details of the biblical justification of such, but recommend the book Church Membership by Jonathan Leeman on the subject. You can purchase a copy here.
Leeman makes this statement in the book (page 22):
If you are a Christian living in a Western democracy, chances are that you need to change the way you think about your church and how you are connected to it. Most likely, you underestimate your church. You belittle it. You misshape it in a way that misshapes your Christianity.
That's a harsh statement for some, but the truth is there. In America especially, the heightened individualization of our faith leaves the faithfulness to brothers and sisters in the local body somewhere on the back burner (if on the proverbial stove at all.)
If you are a Christian, the local church is not a club. It is not a voluntary organization where membership is optional for you. It is not a friendly group of people who share an interest in religious things and so gather weekly to talk about the divine. Nor is a church a service provider, where the customer has all authority.
The church is God-ordained and the fellowship of believers is needed. It is needed for each believer and for glorifying the Father.
My Responsibility to "My" Church
How I interact with former members varies depending on the former member. This is a reality for all relationships. How a brother or sister in a local church interacts with those who used to be in their church changes when they leave. This is inevitable.
The universal church is biblical. However, the local church body is as well. These are not the same, yet both are needed.
As a pastor I have a responsibility to God and my church to the members of my church. (I say my church here just to distinguish it as different from other local bodies. I know it is not my church, but God's.)
I do not have that same pastoral responsibility to brothers and sisters in the universal church.
In the local church, there is a covenant relationship between members. In some ways this relationship is like the "I do" stated at a wedding. Church membership is about the church taking the biblical responsibility for its members and for each member taking responsibility for the church.
Whether you meet in a church building, a home, a school, a YMCA, or other venue, the local body of the church is where membership is held. This is because it is within the local body that accountability, discipline, discipleship, worship, the partaking of the Lord's Supper, and other needful things occur.
Back To The Awkward Encounter
My encounters with former members are not always awkward. In most cases, the awkwardness does not resonate from me (at least not intentionally) because I no longer have the oversight/shepherding responsibility for that brother or sister. I won't need to offer them counseling. I won't officiate their wedding or speak at their funeral. I won't take them on mission trips or start a Bible study with them. Of course, I am speaking of the one now attending and a member of another local body.
For the stray sheep out there, going nowhere, seeking God, but simultaneously running from him, I pray and will continue to follow the Holy Spirit's lead of drawing him/her back into the fold.
In most cases however, it's not about getting the distant sheep back into the fold, it is about getting the lost saved.
The Awkwardness Will Likely Continue
The state of American evangelicalism means that these encounters by Christians in suburban and fast-growing areas will continue. People will join your church. They will leave and join another. Some will join who have more church memberships from local churches than Tom Brady has Super Bowl rings. Sadly, this is just how it is. While I lament when a brother or sister leaves our church, especially if it is due to sin on my part or theirs, I trust God that he will place them where they can serve and be shepherded well.
Pastors, be encouraged in this. The awkward meetings are very real, especially in the west. It will not always be this way. It is not this way on my global mission fields. Be thankful there are others seeking to honor God and new churches are being planted. Shepherd the flock God has given you. Lead your church to seek and save the lost, not the already saved who attend elsewhere.
As for loving your brothers and sisters, regardless where they attend weekly for worship, there is no pass. Love God and love others. This is non-negotiable, whether they attend your church, another church, or no church.
And if you have the awkward encounter, smile, offer a handshake, say a brief prayer and go get your gallon of milk.