When Discontent Sheep Show Up
Most pastors have heard the complaints of visitors coming from other local churches. It is not uncommon for believers to grow discontent with their circumstances and begin looking elsewhere for a new church family at some point in their Christian lives. In America, it is all too easy to leave one congregation and join a new one a few steps down the road; but, pastors and churches need wisdom to know how to engage discontent sheep.
Faithful local churches want to grow through the redemption of sinners. Through evangelistic efforts and the consistent administration of the ordinary means of grace, there should be a healthy expectation that there will be new believers joining the church periodically. However, the most significant growth in most local churches is Christians transferring their membership from other local churches. Almost 60% of American churches have an average of 75 members, so it's refreshing and can be exciting to see new faces with new and different gifts. It is not wrong to want to see the church grow, but it should never be without several important considerations.
It can be easy to fall into the snare of entertaining the unrighteous comments of discontent sheep when they come from other congregations. C.S. Lewis brilliantly described the allure of comparison when he explained the true nature of pride in Mere Christianity. Lewis wrote,
"Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man... It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone."
A pastor must guard against comparing himself or his church to other pastors or local churches. There can be an unrighteous tendency to prey on those who may not be thinking clearly about their circumstances for want of a new church member. Pastors should always be quick to remember that for every discontent sheep that comes to them from another congregation, there are more than likely sheep in their own congregation that have done the same thing at other times. Proverbs 18:17 provides the helpful reminder that, "The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him." Pride is a pernicious evil that can only serve to drive a wedge between churches and their leaders who should instead be encouraging and praying for one another, hoping for each other's growth and faithfulness in their shared community. The "golden rule" certainly applies in the relationships between churches and their members (Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31).
Pastors should make an effort to meet with the discontent sheep from other faithful local churches who have visited, and should be prepared to ask several pointed questions: What is so bad at their church that Christians can't be reconciled to one another or problems solved in a godly manner (Matthew 5:24)? Have they done everything possible to live peaceably with the members and leadership of the church they're leaving (Romans 12:18; Hebrews 12:14)? Are they filled with any malice, strife, deceit, jealousy, anger, or hostility, or are they engaging in gossip (Romans 1:29; 2 Corinthians 12:20)? Pastors should be careful to not listen to the discontent ramblings of a bitter spirit, but should instead seek to encourage the brother or sister to remove the log from their own eye and make a new attempt at reconciliation (Matthew 7:5), or even offer to act as a mediator if the issue is with the leadership of the other church.
There are certainly cases when the discontentment of sheep is legitimate and they have good reasons to leave their church. Sadly, churches can be abusive and authoritarian, or they can be heretical. Additionally, a Christian should have a general desire to be in their church knowing that there is substantial agreement on doctrine and philosophy of ministry. If things change, there may be very legitimate reasons for a believer to look for a new church family. Likewise, Christians are never obligated to remain in a local church and nobody can insist that they must. Church membership is a vital aspect of the Christian life; but, Christians need to be members of a faithful local church, not necessarily any one church that they may have joined at some particular point in time.
Nevertheless, when pastors are not careful to ask the right questions, to challenge gossip or uncharitable comments, or to insist on attempts at reconciliation, there is a subtle undermining of the other church that takes place. Often, the issues that cause discontent sheep to leave their churches are not informed by all of the necessary details to make a decision. Sometimes there are bits of information that are not known and sometimes cannot be divulged. So it is important for local pastors to develop healthy relationships with other local pastors so that when a discontent sheep shows up from another church, the pastors of each congregation can talk openly about the best steps forward. There is no room for ministerial greed in the Kingdom of God; it does great harm to the church at large and only serves to fuel the pride of men. Churches need not have territorial, competitive spirits. The churches of God should want the best for one another, and how we interact with discontent sheep from each other's churches can go a long way in being a united, faithful, God-glorifying presence in our communities.