As a member of Clifton Baptist Church, a church that is admittedly transient, I have often thought about the best way our church can approach the seemingly constant influx and outflow of people. Every church has its own cultural climate and context, and often these factors can create an environment where people are coming and going quite frequently. So if you are currently attending a church and the transient nature of the membership is bothersome or discouraging, let me offer an observation that helped me reorient how I think about my church and ministry.
Side note: If your church is transient due to poor leadership or sinful behavior in the church then what I’m about to say probably won’t be very helpful. I mainly have churches in mind that are in a city or context where people naturally come and go as “way of life” situations or “ministry calling” pulls them away.
We’re a Family
The language in the New Testament consistently invokes the language of family, namely “brothers and sisters”. The idea behind this is that Christians are siblings with God as our Father. This theological theme encompasses why we should confront a brother who is in sin or lift up a sister who needs encouragement: we love and care for our family. But how, you may ask, should this frame our view of transience?
Serving for 6+ years with children and now teenagers has brought me to a unique experience: watching those who I first met when they were children graduate from High School. I experienced something youth pastors must feel annually and parents feel less frequently but more deeply: proud joy mingled with nostalgic sorrow. All the times mentoring, praying, studying, and laughing are coming to a close. The proud smile coupled with misty eyes as they cross a stage and are suddenly more of a peer than a student is but a small reflection of the paradoxical feeling within.
The ebb and flow of life makes the moment of transition almost magical. When did it happen? When did they stop running around laughing uncontrollably as you played games with them on a playground and start taking their life and faith seriously? As this moment takes you by surprise you can’t accurately describe the feeling. You are proud of them, happy because they are happy, but there is a unique sadness that only wells up during these times of jettison. This is, after all, what you have been working toward. And yet, part of you wants to stop the clock, fly out the window beneath a star filled sky, and runaway to Neverland, keeping the joy and laughter going on forever. But reality slowly settles on you, like a scratchy blanket you reluctantly get used to, and you know they must go and that things cannot go back to what they were.
As this realization landed on me, at first I was filled with a great sense of dread. What’s the point? Every year I will have to say goodbye to another set of students, always feeling like a part of my family is being ripped from my presence. But then, suddenly, I realized, this is what families are meant to do. You invest, discipline, sacrifice, love, serve, and work toward the day when the baby throwing food in your face is shaking your hand like an adult and leaving your side. And if the church is a family, and if part of the duty of the church is to send workers out into the world, then we, like so many parents, can proudly wipe tears from our eyes as those we have grown to love and cherish leave us. We may not be able to steal our churches and friends away to some Christian-Neverland, where ministry, service, and love go on forever… But one day our King will return and take us to a Forever-land, where joy and laughter will echo in the hills and mountains on top of new stories and smiles into eternity.
As this thought has continued to penetrate my heart, like a new pair of glasses that come with tissues for joyful-sorrow-filled-tears, I can look at my transient church with a newfound sense of purpose and wonder. God, in his glorious plan and love, has given us a family larger and greater than we could fathom, and it comes with many unique joys, privileges, responsibilities, and sorrows. A parent would never abandon their responsibilities or stunt their child to keep them from growing up and moving away because they love their family and know they are working toward something far greater. We also, out of love and an eternal purpose, should not abdicate the same responsibility as the family of God. We meet to part and part to meet, indeed.