Discipleship should go far beyond a few weeks of membership classes. Great patience and effort is needed to love our neighbors and help them in honoring their membership vows before Christ. Ministering to those exiting evangelicalism will by no means be an easy endeavor, but it very well may be the unique mission field that Lord is calling us to serve.
What I am about to describe is something I’m quite sure every pastor has experienced at some point in his ministry. A visitor approaches immediately after the service and is ecstatic about what he just heard. “Pastor, that was the best thing I’ve ever heard. I found my new church home. Where do I sign up, and how can I jump in and begin to serve?” Within the next few months, that new visitor is welcomed as member of the church, and everyone is encouraged.
Then, however, seemingly out of nowhere, the new member is gone. The pastor is never consulted, but he is told by another member that the visitor was unhappy with something in the church, usually the friendliness of the people, and they are now seeking another church. Then begins the difficult and time-consuming process of sorting out what went wrong. Blame is placed on the church for her failures and discouragement filters to other members who hear the complaints.
I confess that after almost twenty years of pastoral ministry, I still do not learn lessons very well. After these many years, I should know by now that affirmations like this, significant pastoral time, and immediate responses that demand becoming a member of the church, typically have around a six-month commitment level, and then the silent departure follows.
The real issue, however, is rarely thought through: Did we really love the visitor with patient discipling, or was this a joint effort in personal and ecclesiastical narcissism?
Evangelicalism’s Seeker Problem
A basic internet search on church visitors will produce dozens of articles that address the different categories of approach. I particularly appreciated one website that categorized church goers as: testers, seekers, pleasers, jumpers, and investors. My purpose is not to outline the different types of church seekers, but to think through the larger problem in evangelicalism with regard to those church visitors who are actually seeking a more substantive church.
We see this constantly in Southern California with a frequent stream of visitors to our worship services. Evangelicalism is in a drastic state of decline, and I suspect in the years to come that we will see record numbers of people who are currently involved in a broader evangelical church identify as exvangelical. There are those, however, who are genuinely seeking something more substantive. Reformed churches offer a radical alternative to the theological shallowness of many evangelical churches. Visitors attend, often after hearing someone like RC Sproul on the radio, and they are mind blown.
The problem is that detoxification from evangelicalism is a very long process and transition to a Reformed church is not an easy one for former evangelicals. You can take an evangelical out of evangelicalism, but it’s far more difficult to take evangelicalism out of an evangelical. In other words, we have to appreciate that coming to a Reformed church really is a new kind of “experience” for evangelicals—and living with “experience” is all they’ve known. The Word of God is expositionally expounded, the sacraments are valued, and the community is serious about the Christian faith all in ways often not previously experienced.
The visitor turned new church member initially celebrated receiving the means of grace. This was expressed as the single great reason for their decision to join. Like anything in life, when the glamour wears off, then comes the hard work of commitment. The honeymoon is wonderful, but then comes the necessary work of sacrificial love. Anyone who is married knows this. And the connection is important, there is a direct parallel to commitment in the church as the bride of Christ and that of a husband and wife in marriage itself.